Evan Fournier relishes first taste of Knicks-Nets rivalry: It felt like a home game

Evan Fournier almost ended up as the hero for the New York Knicks when he sank a game-tying triple with 17 seconds left. But unheralded Brooklyn Nets’ forward James Johnson had other plans.

The Nets drew the first blood in the Battle of New York this season with a gut-wrenching 112-110 win over the Knicks Tuesday night before a sellout crowd of 18,081. It was the largest attendance to a Nets’ home game in franchise history. Thanks, in large part, to the Knicks fans who invaded the Barclays Center in Atlantic Avenue.

“That was my first time playing Brooklyn as a Knick. It was fun. It felt like a home game,” Fournier said after Wednesday’s practice. “The atmosphere was great. It’s too bad we couldn’t get a win.”

It was jarring to watch Kevin Durant and James Harden, two of the league’s superstars, getting booed at their homecourt. But the Knicks fans made it happen, drowning the Nets’ fans at times. Even Julius Randle got MVP chants in his lone trip at the line.

“It was cool,” Fournier said. “We would have won like nobody cares when you lose.”

Fournier said they were all upset they lost a big game. But they were encouraged that it was just a one-possession game against the preseason title favorites.

“So the difference between winning and losing in a lot of games is very, very small. In a lot of games, we were up 15 and blew up leads. So, I think we can be really good and you know, I’m talking about elite, but we have to do it for 48 minutes,” Fournier said. “And when we start doing that, we’re going to take off.”

Inconsistency had been the Knicks’ biggest woe this season. But 20 games into the season, Tom Thibodeau made a drastic change to the lineup, dropping the 6-foot-1 Kemba Walker from the rotation in favor of the 6-foot-6 Alec Burks. After two games, the Knicks look more like last season’s team that grinded out wins with Thibodeau’s signature defense.

They held the Nets to just eight triples on 28.6 percent shooting. But Durant took over down the stretch with 11 points in the final 5:45 of the game. The Nets entered the game averaging 12.9 3s on a 37.5 percent mark. The Knicks perimeter defender is much improved with Burks in the starting lineup. In Burks’ first starting gig, they limited the Hawks to only nine triples on a dreadful 24.3 percent clip.

One of the upsides of the Burks experiment is his size which gave them versatility on switching defense. It threw off Trae Young and the Hawks over the weekend. But the Nets posed a different challenge.

“We didn’t get to switch much really because just the way [Brooklyn] played,” Fournier said. “They played so much isolation and that they don’t really screen so much so it didn’t really have an impact [Tuesday night].”

Their third showdown with the Chicago Bulls this season Thursday night at home will offer a different challenge to the refurbished Knicks’ defense. The Bulls have more weapons offensively than the Nets, with the trio of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic. Add defensive-minded guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso to the mix, who can also hurt on offense.

“They give you a different challenge because DeMar is such a unique player. He operates out of the midrange which is a lost art nowadays. Zach is extremely explosive. They’re just a well-built [team],” Fournier said.

“They have Vooch, who is back, that can really stretch the floor as a big. And they play hard. We owe them one and [Thursday’s game] will be interesting. The first two games in Chicago were intense, hard-fought battles and I expect that [on Thursday].”

The Bulls will be without key reserve Coby White, who has entered the health and safety protocols after testing positive for Coronavirus. White had 14 pts, hitting big shots in the fourth quarter, against the Knicks in the Bulls’ 109-103 win last month.

The Bulls and the Knicks enter Thursday night’s showdown with a winning record after at least 20 games for the first time since 2013, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

It will be a defensive slugfest as the Bulls currently sport the fourth-best defensive rating in the league (105.4). On the other hand, the Knicks are starting to regain their defensive identity after the recent change. It’s one of Thibodeau’s primary considerations when he made the bold move to yank a well-respected and accomplished player like Walker. 

Fournier said the chemistry of the starting lineup is fine. Except for a lackadaisical start in the third quarter where they dug a 16-point hole against the Nets, the starters looked more compact and engaged for the most part since the lineup change.

“I thought we started the game well. You know, AB is a really good player. He’s smart. We’re basketball players. We know how to make plays for each other. We’re gonna get a feel for each other and keep growing.”

Burks is an instant hit with the staring lineup recording season-highs in scoring in two consecutive games. Over the last two games he started, Burks is averaging 24.0 points and four triples on a 42/47/73 shooting split along with 6.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 2.0 steals.

Perhaps in respect to Walker, whom he shared a bond dating back to last season in Boston, and with just a couple of games in, Fournier deferred giving his judgment on the new makeup of the starting lineup.

“It’s kind of hard to answer because you need to see a bigger sample and get lessons from it. Kemba and Alec are different players. They bring different things to the table,” Fournier said. “So it’s a wait-and-see, really.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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