Just one loss from tying the longest home losing streak in NBA history, the Knicks stunned San Antonio on Feb. 24 with their first home win in nearly three months, halting a seemingly never-ending skid after 18 straight losses.
The giddy crowd soaked up every second of the rare occasion, hitting its crescendo on Dennis Smith Jr.’s backboard lob to Mitchell Robinson in the final minute.
For the first time, Smith seemed like so much more than a talented throw-in acquired — alongside much more coveted cap space — in last season’s blockbuster trade for Kristaps Porzingis, putting up 19 points, 13 assists, six rebounds, two steals and no turnovers in his eighth game with the Knicks.
When the Spurs returned to the Garden on Saturday night, the 21-year-old felt so much farther from finding his place in New York.
After starting 119-of-122 games in his first two seasons and averaging at least 28 minutes per game, Smith came off the bench in the first eight games of his first full season with the Knicks, averaging just 14.4 minutes and 4.9 points. The lottery pick, who was hampered by a preseason back injury and then spent two weeks away from the team while mourning the death of his stepmother, was even considered for a G-League stint upon returning from his time off with his family in North Carolina, as Smith attempts to improve his conditioning.
“I had a feeling, too, that it’s gonna be a little up and down for Dennis now,” Fizdale recently said. “He seems like he’s getting into a rhythm and he’s finally got some legs underneath him, but obviously that conditioning, he’s fighting to get that back, that game conditioning, so he can play both ends of the floor hard consistently for all his minutes.”
The bar is so much lower than it was supposed to be.
As a rookie, Smith earned the praise of LeBron James while averaging 15.2 points and 5.2 assists in Dallas. The second-year guard was then deemed one of the best available talents the Knicks could get in exchange for the face of their franchise. Smith then recorded 14.7 points and 5.4 assists per game following his in-season introduction to a new team.
The offseason would help. Comfort and chemistry would improve.
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But a back injury limited Smith to just two preseason appearances, in which he shot 3-of-17 from the field. His confidence was chipped away after hitting 1 of 11 attempts in the first three games of the season, capped with the Garden crowd booing Smith in the Knicks’ first home game, while chanting for Frank Ntilikina.
Smith then went 17 days without appearing in a game. His return marked his second scoreless outing of the season, but he followed with 13 points, eight assists and six rebounds in a win over the Mavericks. On Wednesday, the young guard provided more optimism as the season ages, finishing with 13 points in 15 minutes against the 76ers.
“I’m getting there,” Smith said. “I feel good when I’m playing. … Still putting in work now. Like I said, it’s going to come around. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m getting there. Take my time with it.”
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