Israeli rookie scores 14 points in first performance at iconic New York arena, but fouls out
NEW YORK – It has been a season of many firsts for Washington Wizards Israeli rookie Deni Avdija.
The highlights have included playing against NBA legend LeBron James and playing side-by-side with teammates Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, and on Tuesday night Avdija experienced another new experience – his first trip to Manhattan’s legendary Madison Square Garden arena, sort of. It was technically his second time in the famous New York sports and concert venue, which first opened its doors in 1879, but his first official NBA contest there.
In anticipation of the Wizards’ current road trip to the Big Apple, which included a 113-106 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday, and features games versus the Knicks Tuesday and Thursday, Avdija playfully said: “I watched a game at Madison Square Garden when I was in eighth grade, when I was with Maccabi [Tel Aviv] on a trip to the United States. We were in New York and at the Garden, but I wasn’t playing at the Garden. I never played on the floor. So it is going to be like a closed circle, you can say. It is cool and exciting. Every new gym that I see, I adore. It’s nice. It is a dream come true!
”Washington coach Scott Brooks was hopeful that the 20-year-old would have more luck at the Garden this week than he has had in the past 23 games. He has been in a three-point slump, shooting only 23 percent from deep, and hasn’t been seeing much playing time in recent games. Brooks likes Avdija and understands his frustration, and offers constant support and guidance.“
The hardest thing for a young player in this league to understand is that you will go through some tough times, but you’ve got to stay confident as best you can and when you do, you will get out on the other side and be a much better player,” noted Brooks. “He hasn’t shot the ball well in the last 23 games. He knows that, we all know that. I still want him to shoot open shots. He doesn’t have to force anything. I told him, I met with him yesterday, I told him run, use your speed, use your ability to get up the court, and try to get yourself an easy one and make a couple of layups and transition, maybe you get yourself fouled and get to the free-throw line, and all of the sudden, the basket doesn’t seem as small as it does when you don’t make any.”
The Knicks entered Tuesday’s contest with a 21-22 record; the Wizards were 15-26. Avdija saw action for the first time with 4:44 remaining in the first quarter with the Wizards leading 22-21. He remained on court for the remainder of the quarter, pulling down one rebound, and missing his only shot. He committed two fouls in the remainder of the quarter and a third foul in the early minutes of the second quarter. He was benched for the remainder of the half to stay out of foul trouble. The Wizards trailed 69-49 at halftime.
Avdija returned to action in the third quarter, scoring five points (one three-pointer), securing a second rebound and committing his fourth personal foul. The Knicks led by as much as 31 points in the quarter.
Avdija had a strong fourth period, scoring eight points (including two free-throws), while committing his fifth personal foul. Avdija’s physical style makes him no stranger to fouling; he averages 4.2 fouls per 36 minutes of play.
“I like being physical on defense. That was my kind of name [while playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv],” Avdija has said. “Since I got here, I’m getting a lot of calls because of that. I’m not going to say I’m less physical, I’m going to be smarter with my physicality.”Avdija ended his Garden debut with another first. He committed his sixth personal foul and fouled out for the first time. The Knicks held on to win 131-113 in front of a small but spirited home-town crowd.
Avdija finished with 14 points and four rebounds in just under 22 minutes of action before fouling out, recording a -5 plus/minus while on the floor.
“I played hard,” said Avdija of his performance. “I tried my best even though I fouled out. We will prepare the best we can and come back different for our next game against the Knicks. Losing three games [in New York] is not acceptable.
“I believe we are getting there. The season is not over yet. Everyone hates losing; hopefully we will lose as little as possible.
”The Garden, with a usual capacity of 20,789, is only operating at 10% capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions. According to the MSG website, new guidelines make it easier for fans to attend as they can now enter with proof of a negative antibody test or full coronavirus vaccination. Members of the media were required to arrive four hours prior to 7:30 p.m. tip off for a health screening and COVID test (I was required to sit in a designated seat for two hours until my results came back negative). Journalists were escorted to media seating and not permitted to leave their designated area during the game. All media sessions pre- and post-game were on Zoom.
From the media section on “the bridge,” located near large banners of retired Knicks and Rangers players, championship pennants, and special banners marking such milestones as “Phish The Bakers Dozen” (12 consecutive nights at the Garden, Summer 2017) and “Billy Joel 119” – most lifetime performances by any artist, reporters look down on thousands of empty seats and scattered fans. Among the small crowd was a mini section of Israeli flag-waving Avdija fans.
Israeli-American Matan Karudo, a 21-year-old Wizards super-fan, was seeing Deni play in person for the second night in three days.
“On Sunday at Barclays Center, I managed to get the closest seats I could to the Wizards!” In contrast to the relatively small Israeli presence at Madison Square Garden, Karudo noted, “There was a massive Israeli and Jewish presence in the section and arena. There were lots of Hebrew speakers I spoke to! We were all excited to see him play! I brought my flag and waved it the whole time.”Karudo was determined to get Avdija’s autograph, but was too far away. Instead, Karudo said, “he tossed me his wristband! That was really exciting! I hope to frame it with my anticipated signed jersey that I’m trying to get this week.
”At the Garden, Karudo sat close to the court with his Israeli-born uncle, Kobi Avgi, who exclaimed, “I want our Israelis to succeed in the NBA. I am a lifelong Knicks fan, but today I am cheering for the Wizards!
”On this night, cheers were not enough.
Coach Brooks was not impressed with his team’s performance.
“They outplayed us from the start. If you don’t compete with some physicality, it will be a long night. We didn’t play well – starters or the bench. It needs to be better going into the next game.
”The Wizards and Avdija have one more chance to beat the Knicks at MSG this week. Tip-off is 7:30 p.m. ET Thursday.