Even Frank Ntilikina’s return not enough for Knicks against Nets

Knicks coach David Fizdale put Frank Ntilikina back on the floor during a timeout with 3:43 left in the third quarter and the Knicks down 16 to the Nets on Saturday night.

Receiving a nice hand from the Garden crowd, Ntilikina, after sitting three straight games, provided a renewed energy and spark — but it was too little, too late.

There was no question the Knicks had a crisper offensive flow with Ntilikina as the floor general for 15 straight minutes to the finish. The first time Ntilikina dribbled the ball downcourt, the Garden erupted in cheers.

The Knicks cut the lead to 101-94 after a Ntilkina floater with 6:20 left. Then Ntilikina got them within 101-96 with a lefty drive with 5:30 left. Finally, Ntilikina buried a 3-pointer to get it to six points with 50 seconds left.

“Huge,” Fizdale said of Ntilikina. “It’s the thread of our team — how they respond to not playing. We were in the mud (beforehand).”

Ultimately, the battle for relevance went to the Nets in a 112-104 Garden victory. Fizdale previously said he won’t call the matchup a rivalry because both clubs are “fighting to stay relevant.’’

Ntilikina, the Knicks’ 2017 lottery pick and key to the future, was a startling DNP for three straight games, then the first half Saturday before Fizdale succumbed with the team down big.

In his return, Ntilikina finished 3-of-6 from the field for seven points and three assists as the Knicks fell to 8-19 with their third straight defeat since stunning Milwaukee in overtime one week ago.

A brief “Where’s Frank?” chant gave rise late in the first half when a series of guards not named Ntilikina checked in for the Knicks.

On Friday, Fizdale indicated Ntilikina would be moving back into the rotation by the weekend. It’s a good time with “French Heritage Night’’ on tap Sunday vs. Kemba Walker’s Hornets.

With the Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie scoring 23 points and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson add 20 points, the Nets’ win marked the first time since 2015 they won the second leg of a back-to-back on the road. The Nets played Friday and snapped an eight-game losing streak with a stunner over Toronto. The Nets (10-18) also hadn’t swept a back-to-back since the 2016-17 season.

On a night the Nets moved the ball and rebounded better than the Knicks, the Nets posted their first two-game winning streak since Nov. 9.

Allen Crabbe’s 3-pointer put the Nets up 75-57 with 6:23 left in the third quarter and Ntilikina was not far away from entering. It was easy for Fizdale to go Ntilikina’s way with Tim Hardaway Jr. shooting blanks (2-of-12, 0-for-5 on 3s).

Knicks rookie lottery pick Kevin Knox came on in the fourth quarter after a silent night, scoring all his seven points. Damyean Dotson got hot alongside Ntiikina for 12 points, and Allonzo Trier added one. Enes Kanter scored 23 points with 14 rebounds but wasn’t in during the fourth-quarter charge.

The Nets have always fared poorly against the Knicks on the rebounding end. But they outboarded the Knicks 30-20 in the first half in taking a 56-45 lead. Nine nets scored but nobody hit double figures.

Fizdale said before the game he’s been experimenting with Trier at backup point guard to see if he can do that, too. Trier contract negotiations are ongoing, which could be the strategic reason to have ignored Ntilikina for 3 ½ games even with point guard Trey Burke hurt.

A frustrated Fizdale called timeout with 3:43 left in the half after Crabbe (17 points) drilled a 3-pointer for a 50-39 lead. A Joe Harris 3-pointer jacked the Nets’ bulge to 54-40 and the Nets led by as many as 15 points late in the second period.

Ntilikina’s challenge of getting into the first half was hindered also because of Courtney Lee. Fizdale is trying to get the rust off Lee after he missed the first 24 games and all of preseason. There’s still hope the Knicks can ship Lee’s contract if he is showcased properly.

Lee played three minutes of the first half, but sat after intermission. Lee admitted the adjustment is tougher than he imagined, feeling like it’s preseason for him.

“It’s going to take a while to get reactivated to game-speed, game-like situations,’’ Lee said before the game. “It’ll probably take couple of weeks to get back get a rhythm and feel chemistry with the guys. I’ve been thrown out there with those guys and trying to play on the fly. Next couple of weeks, I’ll start to feel comfortable out there.”

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