Enes Kanter and the Knicks weren't going to let LeBron James rook Frank Ntilikina

Dan Devine
Enes Kanter gets in LeBron James’ face after the four-time MVP started with rookie Frank Ntilikina. (Getty)
Enes Kanter gets in LeBron James’ face after the four-time MVP started with rookie Frank Ntilikina. (Getty)

LeBron James made it clear on Monday morning that saying the New York Knicks made a mistake by drafting Frank Ntilikina over Dennis Smith Jr. was not a shot at the Knicks’ new teenage point guard, but rather one at the King’s old friend Phil Jackson. Evidently, young Frankie Smokes did not get the message.

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With just under one minute remaining in the first quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ visit to Madison Square Garden to take on the New York Knicks on Monday night, Cleveland guard Dwyane Wade grabbed an offensive rebound, took advantage of an unsettled Knicks defense, and lofted up a lob for James. LeBron dunked it home, giving the Cavs a 23-22 lead. As he headed back on defense, James ran straight into Ntilikina, the 6-foot-5 point guard from Belgium whom the Knicks selected with the No. 8 pick in June’s 2017 NBA draft.

As Ntilikina leaned down to pick up the ball so the Knicks could inbound it, James stood over him. Ntilikina — who’s just 19 years old, but who already has a couple of years of pro experience under his belt in France’s top league and in the EuroLeague — didn’t back down from the four-time Most Valuable Player, shoving him back so he could get rid of the ball. When James stayed put in Ntiikina’s path, the rookie shoved him again, bumping him out of the way, which drew attention from the referees … and the hasty arrival of Knicks center Enes Kanter:

The Knicks center had come to his rookie’s defense verbally after James’ proclamation of preference for Smith over Ntilikina, saying, “I don’t care who, I just cannot let anyone disrespect my family like that, because when I play for an organization, I see my teammates and that organization as like a family. And it doesn’t matter if it’s LeBron or whoever it is, I cannot just let him disrespect him like that.” Kanter’s impassioned response led James’ clarification at Monday’s shootaround, as well as this note about the Turkish big man:

On Monday night, Kanter made good on his word, rushing to Ntilikina’s side and getting in James’ face in a brief dust-up that earned both technical fouls, and that got the crowd at the World’s Most Famous Arena worked into a lather.

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What got the fans in the stands really fired up, though, was what came next.

The Knicks dominated the second quarter, turning seven Cleveland turnovers into 10 points and holding the Cavs to just 13 points on 5-for-24 shooting. Ntilikina had a big hand in the action, notching four steals in the quarter alone to help disrupt the Cavs offense as New York went on a 16-2 run to take over the game, and take a 51-38 lead into halftime.

Asked by MSG Network’s Al Trautwig as he headed into the locker room what he thought about the skirmish with LeBron, Ntilikina paused and said, “We’re together. That’s it. And if their team is going to come at us, we’re going to fight together.”

Not bad for a dud of a draft pick, huh?

The Knicks did fight together … right up until the final 12 minutes. That’s when LeBron (who scored or assisted on 30 of the Cavs’ 43 fourth-quarter points) and Kyle Korver (19 of his 21 points in the fourth) took over, leading Cleveland all the way back from 23 points down for a 104-101 win.

While James took over the game on both ends, orchestrating Cleveland’s high-octane offense and smothering Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis, Kanter had a quiet fourth. He went scoreless with four rebounds in 7 1/2 minutes of run before watching the finish on the bench, as Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek opted for versatile swingman Lance Thomas in hopes of finding wings who could stay connected to Cleveland’s shooters and get stops. (No dice.)

Kanter sure wasn’t quiet after the game, though, when asked about the second-quarter incident that turned a sleepy and sloppy game into a much more charged affair:

James, for his part, laughed off Kanter’s remarks as “corny,” before offering a quick retort:

… and saying that he wasn’t “going to say that guy’s name again.” He won’t have to for quite some time; the Knicks and Cavs won’t cross paths again until mid-April, in the last two games of the season. That’s either just enough time for everybody to chill out … or an awfully long time for burgeoning resentments to fester.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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