It is virtually impossible to predict when a team will turn the corner.
Case in point: The Atlanta Falcons. The Kansas City Chiefs walked into the Georgia Dome on Dec. 5 and strutted out with a 29-28 win over the Falcons.
Atlanta, winner of three of its previous four and bristling with confidence, were reeling. But instead of crashing, the Falcons regrouped and reeled off six straight, eventually getting to the Super Bowl.
Not even the most long-suffering Falcons fans saw it coming.
Which brings us to the Knicks.
Fans had every reason to be cautiously optimistic heading into 2016-17.
Along with the returning Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks added starters Courtney Lee, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. They bolstered the bench with Brandon Jennings, Justin Holiday, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and one of the biggest surprise rookies in the NBA, Willy Hernangomez.
The Knicks, adapting to a new a coaching staff while missing Noah and Rose for portions of the preseason, got off to an impressive 14-10 start. But the preparation time lost in training camp and the preseason, in addition to injuries, took a toll.
Why can it happen? Because it’s quite possible the Knicks got a much-needed boost – and break – over the All-Star Weekend.
Porzingis, who was slowed the second half of the first 57 games with a sore Achilles tendon and stomach flu, posted a double-double that helped the World Team to a 150-141 win over the USA Team in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night.
Hernangomez, a last-minute addition to the game, showed in just 22 minutes why he has the potential to develop into a Marc Gasol-type front court player. He grabbed six rebounds, scored two points, and had one assist as he deferred to others.
Anthony, who became a 10-time All-Star when he replaced Kevin Love (knee surgery), scored 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting (2-of-6 from behind the arc) and had three rebounds in 19 minutes in the Eastern Conference’s 192-182 loss to the Western Conference.
Porzingis obviously got the biggest boost.
He scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Rising Stars Challenge. He followed up that performance by winning the Skills Challenge on Saturday, beating All-Star Gordon Hayward in the finals.
Behind his genuine smiling persona is a fierce competitor. Porzingis expected big things from himself and his team this season.
Although the Knicks are very much in the playoff hunt and KP is in the top four of seven statistical categories among second-year players, he takes each loss personally. Winning is like the gorgeous weather we enjoyed in the metro area this holiday weekend.
“It feels good to win no matter what,” Porzingis said of his Skills Challenge triumph. “Even [Friday], it felt good to get a win.’’
The Skills Challenge format – which includes dribbling, passing and shooting, seems stacked against other front court players. The winner of the forward/center bracket must face the winner of the point guard/shooting guard bracket in the finals.
Traditionally, guards are better suited to that skill set. But the 7-foot-3 Porzingis is one of the new breed of big men who possess non-traditional games.
Porzingis defeated former Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins in the first round. Cousins was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, where he will play alongside All-Star Game MVP Anthony Davis, who set an All-Star Game record with 52 points.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic, another of the young, talented big men that possess guard skills, was Porzingis’s second victim. Next was Hayward, a supremely talented shooting guard that the Jazz have focused their rebuilding project on.
The competition required Porzingis to dribble through a slalom course, make a chest pass through a tire, dribble the length of the court for a layup and knock down a trey.
Porzingis made his first pass through the tire, which allowed him to get to the three-point line before Hayward. He drained his first trey and raised his right arm skyward, pointing his index finger to the rafters.
“Before we started, in the walk-through, I know the pass and shot was most important,’’ Porzingis said. “I was able to make the pass on the first time, all three times. And then the final, the first shot went in. A little bit of luck.’’
And a lot of skill.
Porzingis was hesitant to say his win is the spark the Knicks need. Noah missed the final five games before the break with a hamstring injury. The Knicks hope to have him back for the post-break opener in Cleveland against the Cavs on Thursday.
But KP wasn’t shy about touting the fact that the fraternity of big men that can dribble, pass, shoot the three and block shots is open to more pledges. Karl-Anthony Towns, who dubbed KP, PorzinGod last year, won the Skills Challenge as well last year.
— Karl-Anthony Towns (@KarlTowns) September 2, 2016
“I think it’s more a message for the kids,’’ Porzingis said. “Big men two years in a row are capable of winning the skills trophy.”
For Anthony, who has played through a sore shoulder that has been more painful than he’s let on, criticism from his former coach George Karl, who was trying to sell his book, and trade rumors, the All-Star Break was going to give No. 7 a respite.
But when Love needed knee surgery, Anthony got the call. He was allowed to arrive in New Orleans a day late in order to get a brief chance to see his family, which embarked on a Caribbean cruise.
“I was a little jealous,” he told reporters.
Anthony, of course, was honored to get the call. He has been a great ambassador for the Knicks and the NBA both on and off the court. He certainly got a pick me up seeing his friends LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Anthony, Noah and Porzingis will get a few days to rest up and maybe, just maybe, the good vibes coming out of the All-Star break will be the push the Knicks need.