If you listen closely to Jeff Hornacek after most games, you can hear the message within the message. Subtle hints to a style of play that he’s trying to get this team to embrace, and a pace at which he’s trying to get them to play.
He saw some of it last night, albeit against an opponent with the worst record in the league, but there was enough of a glimpse to allow Hornacek to smile and appreciate what he saw. It motivated him to leave in a group of bench players to finish a game that had must-win all over it and felt like another maddening loss for most of the night.
That is until the fourth quarter, when the subs, led by seldom-used Sasha Vujacic, turned the game around with plain old hard work.
“We just said we are not going to lose tonight,” said Vujacic, who had 12 points in 22 minutes, including two four-point plays. “I think the hustle prevailed.”
Let the hustle prevail. There’s a team motto a coach can embrace.
Hornacek didn’t get much out of his starters, who again looked slow and sluggish. There was no Derrick Rose (ankle), but Carmelo Anthony, who has had a brilliant run of scoring over the last two weeks of January, missed 16 of his 22 field goal attempts. Joakim Noah saw just 13:19. Courtney Lee was 3 for 7 and -15 in 27:54.
By the fourth quarter, they were all on the bench watching the reserves scrap and claw away a 10-point deficit with a spirited 16-2 run.
“Ain’t no way I’m going back in there,” Melo said he thought to himself midway through the quarter. He said there was “no need to go back in there and break up what those guys had going on.”
What they had was chemistry. The Euroballers lineup, which we saw early in the season but not often enough since, was Euroballin’ against a Nets team that has a penchant for blowing leads late in games.
“Just the energy those guys brought,” Hornacek said proudly.
Kristpas Porzingis, who missed the previous game with a stomach flu, become the centerpiece of the comeback with his offense (19 points), rebounding (12 boards) and defense (two blocked shots). Willy Hernangomez played alongside him at the power forward spot and posted his ninth double-double (16 points and 16 rebounds) of the season.
Brandon Jennings, who started for Rose, struggled with his shooting but dished out 10 assists and had 5 of the team’s season-high 16 steals.
And it’s here where you have to listen closely now to what he says. Hornacek has talked a lot about energy and effort this season. In fact, it started in training camp and has been a recurring theme. So in the third game in four nights, on the second of a back-to-back, in a stretch of games that started with the exhausting four overtime loss to the Hawks on Sunday, the coach was thrilled to find a reason not to have to go back to the starters.
This was the way he wanted to play, but it was less about system — yes, they ran some Triangle sets — and more about effort.
“They executed plays because they were fresh enough to go off [screens] hard,” he said. “Some of it, when you go off slow, they can guard you, they can step up.”
Rather than rely on isolation plays for Melo and Rose, which has been the formula late in games, Hornacek seemed happy to just run offense down the stretch. It wasn’t always pretty, but the results were still positive. The Knicks recorded 8 of their 23 assists in the fourth quarter on 11 made field goals.
“When you do that,” Hornacek pointed out, “that means the guys are sharing the ball and it makes it easier on everybody.”
The February schedule may be easier on everybody, thanks to the upcoming All-Star break, but it doesn’t mean it lacks challenges. The Knicks (22-29), who haven’t won back-to-back games since Dec. 22, next host the Cavaliers on Saturday night.
A great test for the Euroballers, especially if the starters — Rose could be back in the lineup — can’t recharge the battery in time for this game. This one is a national broadcast on ABC, but we’ll have Knicks Extra on MSG Network immediately following the game.