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Knicks respond to LeBron's putdown ahead of matchup with Cavs

NEW YORK -- When the Cleveland Cavaliers head to Madison Square Garden on Monday night to face the New York Knicks, there are bound to be some awkward moments.

After all, LeBron James can't both play against the Knicks and be their general manager, can he?

James created headlines on Sunday after telling reporters that Dallas Mavericks guard Dennis Smith Jr. -- who had 21 points, seven assists and five rebounds in a 111-104 loss to the Cavaliers early that night -- "should be a Knick."

The thinly veiled jab at New York's selection of guard Frank Ntilikina, who with the eighth pick went one selection ahead of Smith in June's NBA Draft, elicited social media responses from the Knicks and sparked intense debate.

New York players and coaches responded after practice on Sunday, though Ntilikina seemed offensive least of all.

"I mean, I don't know why he made those comments, but all I can say is we love Frank, we're happy with him," Kristaps Porzingis told reporters. "He's doing a great job. He's playing great, and he's doing what he's supposed to. And I would not change Frank for anybody. Simple."

The return of Joakim Noah from a 20-game performance-enhancing drug suspension will add to the intensity of the matchup, the team's second of the season after a mid-October Knicks win.

Noah and James have a heated rivalry that goes back nearly a decade.

In order to make room for Noah, the Knicks released forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who was signed before last season and has played in just one game this year.

"The respect this franchise has for Mindaugas cannot be overstated," Knicks general manager Scott Perry said in a statement. "His professionalism and work ethic were greatly appreciated by his teammates, coaches and the entire staff.

"This decision was extremely tough for us. We wish him nothing but the best moving on with his playing career."

With Noah back in the fold, the Knicks appear to have one of the strongest frontcourts in the league.

Porzingis has blossomed into one of the NBA's top scoring threats. He is one of just three players averaging better than 30 points per game.

Enes Kanter has impressed in his first season with New York after being traded by Oklahoma City in the package that brought Carmelo Anthony to the Thunder. Kanter is averaging nearly 14 points and 11 rebounds and has played stellar defense, including that for Ntilikina on Sunday.

"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," Kanter said. "And it doesn't matter if it's LeBron or whoever it is, I cannot just let him disrespect him like that.

"The coaches, the GMs, the president, this organization knows what they're doing.... I mean, come on. That's a rookie. You cannot just say anything like that about him."

While still not scoring much, Ntilikina has impressed of late with his defense and passing. He is averaging nearly seven assists and two steals in November games. The Knicks are 7-2 since Ntilikina returned from an early season ankle injury, including their 114-95 win over the Cavaliers on Oct. 29 when Porzinigis scored 32 points and James finished with 16.

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