There was a bit of an awkward atmosphere in The Garden for this game. While it’s great to see old friends like Rory Sparrow, Quentin Richardson and Al Harrington, it’s hard not to recall their years with the Knicks weren’t the best of times. Then there was Patrick Ewing, the franchise’s greatest player and most recent good memories for a generation of Knicks fans, and yet the conversation was less about 1994 and more about 2000, when he asked to leave.
And that leads us to Carmelo Anthony, standing during the national anthem, wondering to himself if this could be the last time he is here at The Garden as a Knick, amid trade rumors with a three-game road trip ahead. That’s when someone yelled out, “WE LOVE YOU MELO!”
By the third quarter, the tone was much different toward the 32-year-old star, who struggled with his shooting en route to an 18-point, 11-rebound performance.
“I enjoy that,” he said, though no one believed him.
Melo’s future in New York is the lead topic among fans and media, but despite the perception, it is not the top priority of the franchise. Nor can it be.
If we’re power ranking importance, Kristaps Porzingis would top the list. So it was encouraging to see him prioritized on the very first possession of the game.
Porzingis has been struggling since his Achilles injury. As we showed you during the pregame Knicks Fix segment on MSG, KP was putting up all-star caliber numbers over the first 32 games of the season:
But over the next 14 games, KP missed 6 with a sore Achilles and lost his rhythm and his place in the offense. The numbers show it:
But in this game, Porzingis looked like he put in a lot of extra work in the gym on his shot and movement without the ball. He was far more active and determined. On the first possession, he knocked down a catch-and-shoot off a screen by Joakim Noah. A scripted play, in a Triangle Set, designed just for him.
KP rode that first shot to a 10-point first quarter. He didn’t miss a shot (4 for 4) and drained a couple of straightaway three-pointers that got the crowd roaring. By halftime, he had 16 points on 7 of 10 shooting — including two dunks that looked like he took off from a runway at JFK — and the Knicks had the lead.
“Felt good,” he said afterward.
But then came two issues of this season: 1. KP doesn’t get any more looks. 2. Foul trouble.
It is unfathomable that a player who started the game 7 for 10 in the first half doesn’t see another shot for 23 minutes and 10 seconds of the second half.
But it was a big shot and Porzingis buried it off a great screen by Courtney Lee and a nice pass from Kyle O’Quinn. The hoop gave the Knicks a 107-101 lead with 50.1 seconds left in the game.
On the next possession, however, he fouled out.
Thanks to Lee (nine of his 16 points came in the fourth quarter) and Melo (his pull-up with 13 seconds left iced it at 109-105), the Knicks (21-27) won this game. As Bill Pidto tweeted last night, “Amazing 2 look at standings in the east, and after all that has gone on, @nyknicks only 2 games out of 8th. Only 2. That is it.”
Derrick Rose (13 points) injured his ankle in the third quarter and left the game but Jeff Hornacek said he didn’t expect it to be serious. Early in the game, Rose looked to pass to Porzingis, which was a good sign. The two seemed to have some good early chemistry that, for some reason, went away.
As we look forward, however, with Porzingis as the priority, I can’t help but look again at Ewing, sitting on the sidelines as associate head coach of the Charlotte Hornets. At that moment, it’s no longer about the sadness and regret of his exit from the Knicks in 2000, but about the important move that he credits to his elevation to superstar in the NBA: when the team drafted Mark Jackson with the 18th overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft.
The Knicks need to find Porzingis his Mark Jackson, a player who arrived and was invested in Ewing’s success and Ewing was dependent on Jackson’s success.
I know, I know, those are rare commodities in today’s NBA. These days, players are responsible only to themselves and success is less symbiotic and more singular. Are the Stockton-Malone type tandems extinct?
As the Knicks develop their “unicorn”, the realization is they need to find another one.