Kristaps Porzingis took up boxing in the offseason to improve strength, footwork, conditioning and toughness.
Thus far it has served him well.
The new face of the Knicks scored 33 points in the 111-107 home-opening loss to the Detroit Pistons on Saturday night. He scored 31 in the season-opening loss at the Thunder, making Porzingis the first Knick to open a season with consecutive 30-point performances since Patrick Ewing did so in 1993-94.
“Patrick Ewing is a legend,” Porzingis said. “I wish I could have a career like him. It’s an honor.”
Here’s what Porzingis is going to need in order to continue to score at such a high level – an enforcer.
Ewing had Charles Oakley, a brute of a power forward who made certain to protect Ewing and any other Knick on the court. Xavier McDaniel also relished that role.
When the Knicks opened a 21-point, first-half lead on the Pistons, cagey coach Stan Van Gundy moved Anthony Tolliver, a 6-8, 240-pound grinder on KP.
While Porzingis was boxing this summer, Tolliver looked like he was doing MMA training (does he have a Conor McGregor tattoo?). Tolliver did everything short of putting KP in a choke hold.
“He was just trying to be aggressive and be all over me,” Porzingis said. “I should have done a better job when he’s so into me — drive by him or be aggressive and get fouled.”
The refs let the rough stuff go, which is OK, as long as it’s consistent. But if the refs are going to back off the whistle, then it’s incumbent on someone in the boxer’s corner to step up – an enforcer.
My first pick for the role is Kyle O’Quinn, the 6-10, 250-pound backup center from South Jamaica who drives a black truck named Black Ops. O’Quinn is a skilled scorer around the basket but he also is willing to do some dirty work.
“KP showed superstar status, glimpses of it,” O’Quinn said. “I hate moral victories, but you have to take something out of it.”
The Knicks can get more out of KP’s emerging superstar status if one of his teammates steps up when the opposition decides to play rock ball.
Second choice for the role? Willy Hernangomez. The second-year pro has expressed displeasure with his lack of playing time. He’s gone about it respectfully and coach Jeff Hornacek has spoken to last year’s All-Rookie selection about picking up his defense.
At 6-11, 240 pounds, Hernangomez has the size and strength to make his presence felt. Remembering Hornacek’s tough, gritty style on defense as a player leads me to believe he’d take note if Hernangomez banged a little more.
“That’s why I have to keep pushing my work on defense,” Hernangomez said. “It’s not because I’m a bad defender it’s just because the team needs [an] impact.”
DEFENSIVE GAS TANK: As was the case in the opener, the Knicks played excellent defense for the first half but faded in the third.
The term running out of gas has been, well, floated.
The view from The Nest isn’t that the Knicks are getting physically worn down on defense (they’ve only played two games!) rather it’s going to take some time to develop 48 minutes of mental defensive toughness.
In the final few minutes of the Detroit loss, the Knicks failed to get a key defensive rebound and were a step late on help defense. Hornacek has tweaked the defense, reducing game-by-game adjustments for an emphasis on desire and soundness.
“We want them to be at least 90 percent,’’ Hornacek said of each player’s defensive efficiency. “That’s the goal. You can do things nine out of 10 times right and we get the whole team to do that, we’ll be OK.”
BALANCED DIET: We tweeted before Saturday night’s game that the Knicks had to find a consistent second option on offense behind KP. Enes Kanter had 17 points and 10 rebounds. Once Tim Hardaway Jr. settles into his role as a scoring guard, the Knicks should have three solid options.