Improved Defense Earning Kuzminskas More Playing Time

Mindaugas Kuzminskas isn’t old enough to remember the Miracle Mets and the native Lithuanian had never heard of Jerry Koosman, so he was fascinated to learn he is not the first metropolitan area athlete to be serenaded by cheers of, ‘Koos! Koos!’

“Actually, the first time when I heard that, I came on to the court and the crowd was saying like ‘Koos,’ and I thought they were booing,’’ Kuzminskas told “I said, OK, that’s not good. I’m doing something wrong then.”

“Then I realized that they’re not booing and I liked it. That’s really something different. It feels really good that I have a good relationship with the people, with the city, with the fans.’’

Kuzminskas, a 6-foot-9, 215-pound rookie forward, came to the NBA with a skill set common among European players. He possessed good ball movement skills and a terrific shooting stroke.

But the physical nature of the NBA takes some getting used to, especially on the defensive end. In order for Kuzminskas to get more minutes, he had to make the acclamation and learn to bang.

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 9: Lance Thomas #42 and Mindaugas Kuzminskas #91 of the New York Knicks talk during the game against the Sacramento Kings on December 9, 2016 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Recently, coach Jeff Hornacek noted Kuzminskas’ improvement on the defensive end. That improvement has resulted in increased playing time. Kuz has averaged 15.8 minutes per game over the last five games, a significant increase from the 11.5 minutes he’s averaged for the season.

When asked about the improvement in his defensive game, Kuzminskas deferred comment.

“I just think they’re the people that should talk about my game,’’ Kuzminskas said. “I’m just happy that coaches are here to help us 24/7 and we are trying to improve those things that need to be improved to be in the game, and help the team win.’’

The coaching staff is thrilled to talk about Kuzminskas’ game, which they might need more of when the Knicks host the New Orleans Pelicans tonight (7 p.m., MSG Network).

“I think it’s getting used to the league,’’ Hornacek said. “The European leagues are pretty physical a lot of the time, but sometimes the size of some of the guys in the NBA are a little bit bigger than he’s had to deal with. I think he’s realizing that.”

“At the beginning, you know, it’s learning how to get hit and not even thinking you’re getting hit. It’s one of the things we talked about the other day. If you’re not hitting guys and feeling that contact, when it does happen, that’s something new.”

“People who sit in the first two rows realize, ‘Man, these guys are cracking each other.’ There’s no pads on or anything like that. But you ask the players and they’re like, ‘Really? It was a lot of contact?’ It’s just a matter of getting used to and that’s where I think Kuz is at.’’

With increased time has come increased production. During that five-game span, Kuzminskas averaged 11.6 points, up from 5.2. He’s shooting 57.9 percent from the field, up from 44.7, and 45 percent on 3s, up from 39.1.

Knicks Kuzminskas Magic Payton Home 010217

He’s also posted 11 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocked shots. He’s not Dikembe Mutombo, but the defense is coming.

“If coach said I’m improving, whether it’s on defense or on offense, I’m just happy,’’ said Kuzminskas. “That just means that me and the coaches are working in a good way.’’

The hard work is paying off, but sometimes experience has to work its magic.

“I feel more comfortable every day,’’ Kuzminskas said. “Just the thing is, we have a little bit difficulty because we’re losing now and I think we are going to start winning again, and me and the team will feel more comfortable every day. We have a lot of new guys on the team and I think that day-by-day we’re knowing each other better and better.”

The Garden certainly has gotten to know Kuz better. In addition to his basketball skill and hustle, he might be the most affable player in the locker room.

When asked what he likes about playing with fellow rookie Willy Hernangomez, Kuzminskas quipped, “I get to practice my Spanish.” This love affair between Kuzminskas and Knicks fans is just beginning.

At least he knows they’re not booing him.

“I’m just happy that my work pays off in this way,’’ Kuzminskas said. “When the fans are saying your name, it’s something cool, especially in Madison Square Garden.’’