Last summer, Evan Fournier was France’s best player in Tokyo Olympics. He’s been clutch as he was with his former NBA teams.
Those memories seem too distant now as Fournier, the most expensive Knicks signing in the offseason, had been glued to the bench in the fourth quarter of eight of the team’s first 15 games, including the last four.
“The way I look at it is that I can’t just play anymore like I did with other teams knowing I’m gonna play 32 minutes at least,” Fournier said. “Like I know where my shots are coming from, I know how things are gonna go for me so I can kind of get into the game knowing what to [expect].”
“Historically, I’ve been good in the fourth quarters and now that I’m not playing in fourth quarters, I have to bring something early on.”
This is the biggest chunk of games in Fournier’s career that he’s not playing in the fourth quarter. Even during his rookie year, he averaged 6.8 minutes in the fourth quarter of 33 of the 38 games he played with the Denver Nuggets.
For the first time since the 2015-16 season, Fournier is averaging below 30 minutes per game.
“With the situation right now, I don’t know how many minutes I’m going to play,” Fournier said. So, I have to have a mindset that if I’m going to play 20 minutes, then let’s just come out of the gate with extreme energy, be very alert, try to be ultra-aggressive and try to have an impact.”
Fournier started the season on fire, hitting big shots against his former teams, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic, in their first two games. During the Knicks’ impressive 5-1 start, Fournier averaged 17.5 points per game, built around a remarkable 45.1 percent three-point shooting.
Then it went downhill from there.
Over his last seven games, his scoring went down to just seven points as his shooting went south (37% from the field, 23% from the 3-point line).
But it wasn’t just him who had been struggling. The entire starting unit is facing chemistry issues as they have the worst plus-minus of any five-man lineup in the league right now. And the schedule is making it more challenging for them to build cohesiveness.
“We don’t practice that much. We don’t play five on five in practice anymore,” Fournier said. “So, it’s really about watching the game, seeing how you can adjust, what you can do better and once you get on the floor, do it. Read situations. From my point of view, that’s really how we can get better just from watching the film. The games keep on coming.”
The game on Saturday against the league-worst Houston Rockets will be the Knicks’ 16th game in 30 days.
Fournier understands Thibodeau’s decision to ride with the hot hands in the fourth quarter as he admitted that his inconsistent play somehow mirrors the team’s play.
“Very inconsistent, obviously,” Fournier replied when asked to assess his season so far with the Knicks. “Kind of like what we’ve been doing as a team, to be honest. We’ve had really good games and really bad games. In 17 games, you’ve got some of my best and some of my worst already. From that standpoint, there’s only one thing for me to do, to keep working and have a winning attitude and do everything I can.”
It’s the same sentiment that Julius Randle had when he was asked to assess his season so far after their second straight loss to the Magic, the Eastern Conference’s worst team.
Randle and Fournier showed encouraging signs at the start of the season that they could replicate or have a better two-man game than what Randle enjoyed with Reggie Bullock last season. But as the season progressed, their chemistry also regressed.
Thibodeau isn’t about to hit the panic button. It’s too early in the season. Building habits take time.
“In fairness to everyone involved, I think after 15 games last season, no one was saying that Julius and Reggie had great chemistry,” Thibodeau said. “It’s something that evolved over the course of the season. So, I think you have to give this a chance to work out.”
While Fournier is not entirely happy with his performance and his fourth-quarter benching, he doesn’t need an explanation from Thibodeau.
“I’m a 10-year vet now,” Fournier said. “I watch the game, I can feel the game, so I don’t need to be finessed. It’s okay, my feelings won’t get hurt. I want the team to play well, and I want to play well. And when I don’t, it’s fine. I have to do better.”
With practices almost confined in the film room, how can Fournier build chemistry with the team?
“Well, communication and make sure we ask ourselves the right questions,” he said.
There’s no doubt in Fournier’s mind that things will get better, and it’s only just a matter of time.
“I always try to look at myself first and how I can do things better to be out there, obviously,” Fournier said. “I’m obviously not happy to be on the bench. But I want to be out there. I know what I’m capable of and I know what I can do to help this team win.”
While he’s still waiting for his shot to fall again and his fourth-quarter minutes to return, Fournier’s plan to attack his sporadic minutes and new role off the ball isn’t just about hunting for his shots early in the game.
“[Being aggressive] means everything. It may mean running harder, getting the rebound so I can push the ball in transition. Just have more energy and be more present because when you let the game come to you all the time, you become kind of passive,” Fournier said.
“Just do the little things. When you’re off the ball, especially as a guy that plays well with the ball, I have to find opportunities. How can I create movement just by running or missing a screen or slipping or something like that?”
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