Knicks forward Kevin Knox will never again get a chance to play a game in his hometown of Tampa, Fla., so he’s going to savor this.
It’s good timing considering the way he has responded after his poor 2019-20 campaign. Knox finally is playing active defense and he’s impressing coach Tom Thibodeau, who called his D “terrific.’’
In a New Year’s Eve matchup, the Knicks face the Raptors, who are playing home games at Amalie Arena in Tampa because of the COVID-19 restrictions in Canada.
Toronto won’t change its slogan to “We The South’’ but the franchise is allowing 3,800 fans to attend. Knox’s parents got tickets and will see him play live for the first time this season.
“It’s a great feeling,’’ Knox said. “I’m grateful to be here. It’s a blessing to play in Tampa. I’ve been looking forward to this game ever since the Raptors moved here to play in my hometown. There’s no basketball in Tampa, so it might be the only year it happens.”
Kevin Knox Sr. was an NFL wide receiver who starred at Florida State.
“My parents are coming to the game,’’ the younger Knox said. “I probably won’t see them because of COVID. But it’s probably the only game they’ll be able to watch me play this season.’’
Too bad. Knox has taken to Thibodeau’s coaching. Attentiveness on defense has always been a major issue for the 6-foot-7 forward, but he’s finally getting it.
Unsolicited, Thibodeau complimented Knox, saying he “is another guy who’s really played well. Unfortunately he had some foul trouble [in Cleveland on Tuesday]. But on the defensive side of the ball he’s been terrific. He’s shooting the ball well for us, and it opens up the floor and creates space for other people to put it down on the floor.’’
Knox has not put up gaudy numbers, but he’s playing within himself. He’s averaging 6.0 points in 22 minutes, shooting 45 percent, and 40 percent from 3-point range.
His inactivity on defense has been a problem, even in his lone season with Kentucky. Kenny Payne, the former Kentucky assistant, is now on Thibodeau’s staff with Knox as his pet project.
“Going out there playing hard, using my length, being able to switch 1 to 4,’’ Knox said after the team practiced. “Guarding the post and perimeter, it’s my versatility and getting through screens. I’m playing with a little more energy on both sides of the floor.”
The Knicks released an injury report that upgraded three players — Austin Rivers (groin pull), rookie Immanuel Quickley (hip) and Alec Burks (sprained ankle) — to questionable. Thibodeau sounded as if two of those three would actually play. Quickley has been out since playing just the first half of the season opener. Rivers has yet to play a preseason or regular-season game. He had his first five-on-five scrimmage Wednesday.
Regarding Quickley, Thibodeau said, “The big thing is to see how he feels [Thursday]. He’s had some contact today. Each day it’s felt better, but we want to see how he responds after taking contact. He’s making good progress. He’s questionable so I guess it’s 50/50.”
Frank Ntiliikna, who had a sore Achilles that cost him two preseason games, now has a sprained right knee and will miss the game. Thibodeau said it’s “day-to-day.’’ but didn’t sound like he would be out an extended time.
RJ Barrett is shooting just 38.5 percent but still has been effective, Thibodeau said. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists.
“He’s playing an all-around game,’’ Thibodeau said. “He’s played well without shooting well. We know the shooting is coming. He’s doing a lot of things for us defensively, moving well without the ball. He’s getting downhill. There’s a lot of room for him to grow.”
PF Omari Spellman still hasn’t made his Knicks’ debut because of knee soreness, and he could be utilized with Obi Toppin (calf) out indefinitely.
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