‘Cheese’ making Most of chances with Knicks

The phone call came early in the morning Lithuanian time and the suspense began.

Mindaugas Kuzminskas’ agent said an NBA team had made an offer to the rising European star and that details would come via email in about five minutes.

Ever wait for the news that a baby was born?

“I was waiting like five minutes, but it seemed like three hours,’’ Kuzminskas told MSGNetworks.com.

At least he wasn’t alone. He called his brother, Saulius, and together they waited.

“He kept saying, ‘I’m so nervous. I’m sweating. I can’t sit still.’’’ Saulius said. “Then he said, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing.’’’

What Kuzminskas saw was that the offer was from the Knicks.

“In Lithuania, the Knicks are one of the great brands,’’ said Saulius. “Like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s. Everyone knows the Knicks.’’

Knicks fans are getting to know the 6-foot-9, 220-pound small forward.

After not playing more than 17 minutes in any game, Kuzminskas posted back-to-back 20-plus minute games in home wins over the Portland Trail Blazers and Charlotte Hornets.

In the 107-103 win over Portland, Kuzminskas scored five of his 10 points in the fourth quarter. He went to the basket for a lefty layup on one play and knocked down a 3-pointer on another.

New York Knicks forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas (91) shoots against Portland Trail Blazers forward Meyers Leonard (11) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Knicks won 107-103. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

“We know he can shoot the ball well,” coach Jeff Hornacek said in the preseason. “He’s got some sneaky athletic ability.

“It’s just a matter of him getting used to the NBA game, and speed and guys in this league.”

Kuzminskas posted 10 points, three rebounds, one assist, and a steal in 21 minutes against the Trail Blazers. He shot 4-of-6 from the field and 2-of-3 from beyond the arc, posting a plus/minus rating of +12.

If Knicks fans were surprised by Kuzminskas’ play, he was not.

In the 2014 FIBA World Cup, he scored a team-high 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds for Lithuania in a 96-68 loss to Team USA.


“That game helped me because I realized they are just humans and you can play against them,’’ Kuzminskas said.

For the longest time, Kuzminskas did not believe he could play in the NBA. He didn’t even think he could play in Europe.

Unlike the 6-foot-11 Saulius, who took to basketball at an early age, Mindaugas competed in track and field in what we would consider high school.

But basketball was his love and he wanted to stay close to the game. He became certified as a FIBA referee and wrote a basketball blog.

When he was 16, he had a growth spurt. That spurt, combined with the athleticism gained in track, Kuzminskas emerged as your classic late bloomer.

That’s when Mindaugas and Saulius decided to play one-on-one.

“We didn’t finish the game,’’ Saulius said with a laugh.

“I was bigger and we almost injured each other without purpose,’’ said Mindaugas, who is two inches shorter than his 6-foot-11 brother. “So we decided we shouldn’t play one-on-one anymore. But then we played on different teams in Europe and we played against each other.

“My team won,” Mindaugas said with his own laugh. “I am better.’’

This is a bond of brothers, the one that exists between Mindaugas and Saulius.

Mindaugas speaks or texts with Saulius after almost every game. Saulius provides insight, but Mindaugas already has grasped the first rule of trying to make it in the NBA.

“I am ready to play whenever coach asks,’’ he said. “Whether it’s to play two, five, 10 minutes, I just try to do everything I can to help my team.’’

That’s the mindset Kuzminskas will have tonight when the Knicks host the Oklahoma City Thunder at The Garden. Whether it’s two minutes or 20, Kuz will be ready.

He certainly helped in the win over Portland. When he knocked down the 3-pointer that gave the Knicks a 105-101 lead with 2:35 left, he almost got caught up in the moment.

Here he was, playing for the Knicks, making a key play down the stretch and The Garden fans were on their feet, cheering for the player his teammates call, ‘Cheese.’

“Great, great, great atmosphere,’’ he said. “Sometimes, I just catch myself thinking, ‘Wow, I’m between the best players in the world.’ And that makes me happy.”

“But it makes me more motivated, more concentrated to get better every day to get more rotation and get more experience in this league.’’


Kuzminskas wears the odd choice of No. 91. Why?

He wore 19 in his six-year European career. But when he signed with the Knicks, he flipped his number to 91, knowing 19 was a retired number.

“Willis Reed,’’ said Kuzminskas. Yes, he knew of The Captain.


When Kuzminskas first joined the Knicks, many of his teammates had yet to learn know to pronounce his name. They went with, ‘Kuz,’ as in couscous.

But once they got a feel for the upbeat, smiling Kuzminskas, the Knicks took to calling him, ‘Cheese,’ as in smile for the camera.


When Kuzminskas is home, he likes to pick wild mushrooms.