Can Hardaway, Knicks Bring Same Energy Tonight?

KNICKS 114, CAVALIERS 95

1. So they finally beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers. It had been three years almost to the day — Oct. 30, 2014 — since the Knicks beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers. We’re talking 10 straight games, including a 30-point blowout loss last December at The Garden when LeBron was so bored he played the bottle flip game on the bench during garbage time.

The Knicks had only that one win over the last 19 games against the Cavaliers when LeBron James wore the wine and gold.

[Coverage of Knicks-Nuggets Starts Tonight at 7 PM on MSG and MSG GO]

So regardless of what LeBron said after the game about it being October and how he’s not concerned about the Cavs’ 3-4 start and getting blown out by the likes of the Knicks, Magic and Pelicans, this was an important win on many levels for the Knicks. In the fourth quarter, the Cavs pushed to cut a 17-point deficit down to six and the Knicks held firm and put the game away. If only they were able to do that against the Pistons in the home opener, they’d have a 3-2 record instead of 2-3.

But perhaps this is all part of the education and the development of this team.

2. No one needed this game more than Tim Hardaway Jr. Over the first week of the season, you could see the tension on his face after every missed shot. As we’ve said here before, he was playing as if he had to justify his contract. Team president Steve Mills said he and GM Scott Perry would text him after games to keep him positive.

“We all tell him to calm down and let the game come to him,” Mills said.

He also added that Hardaway Jr.’s struggles were “just the pressure of him coming back and wanting to be a leader of the team and wanting to do well.” Can you really fault a player for that?

Steve Mills gives his thoughts on the Knicks through the first few games of the season, while Wally Szczerbiak and Alan Hahn chime in on what they’ve seen from the team.

After he missed his first couple of shots, Hardaway Jr. suddenly got on a roll. He is the ultimate heat-check player who, when hot, can burn for a while. He made 11 of 19 from the field and 5 of 10 from three-point range. Hardaway Jr. smoked his old teammate, J.R. Smith, throughout the game.

It was good to see Hardaway play with confidence and play freely. It will be interesting to see if, after 41 minutes, he can bring the same energy again in a back-to-back.

3. It’s easy to do, but you can’t overlook the subtle move Jeff Hornacek made with the starting lineup by moving Jarrett Jack into the point guard position in place of Ramon Sessions. Jack has gotten the offense organized over the last two games and against the Cavs he recorded 9 of the team’s 27 assists.

Combine that with rookie Frank Ntilikina‘s emergence in the rotation and you see two games where the Knicks are getting good production out of the point guard position. Ntilikina averaged 7 points and 4 assists in under 20 minutes per game against Brooklyn and Cleveland and yet the stat sheet doesn’t tell the entire story of the noticeable impact he has in these games.

[Robbins: Ntilikina Makes Debut 50 Years After Clyde]

Point guard play is vital to success in the NBA. The best Knicks season in the last 15 years was in 2012-13 when Hall of Famer Jason Kidd ran the offense. Derrick Rose had a good start last season as the Knicks were 14-10 in the first quarter of the season, but once his performance (and health) fell off, so did the team. Rose is now in Cleveland and came back after missing four games with an ankle sprain. He was 6 for 14 from the field and a -22 in 31 minutes.

Ntilikina is going to endure growing pains, which is expected of a 19-year-old in this league. But the Knicks, as Mills said, are committed to his development. But how long can the Knicks expect to get positive production out of Jack, who, at 34, is coming off two seasons of knee injuries? And if Jack, who signed a non-guaranteed veteran’s minimum deal, is the “bridge quarterback” to Ntilikina, what does that mean for Ramon Sessions?

4. Kristaps Porzingis had three 30-point games in the first two seasons of his career. This season, he already has four in the first five games after posting 32 points and 12 rebounds against the Cavs small front line. And it’s quite clear KP isn’t the same player this season that he was his first two years. We’re seeing a 7’3″ player who is absolutely dominating on the mid-post, especially if you try to guard him one-on-one.

He was 13 for 27 from the field in his game and it really didn’t feel like he took that many shots. Why? They were quick decisions and mostly in the flow of the offense. He’s really becoming a modernized version of Dirk Nowitzki, who could shoot over smaller defenders in the post and beat you from three-point range (2 for 5) if you don’t close out.

And beyond the offense is his defensive activity. KP had two more blocks in this game (7 on the season) and has been a presence not just at the rim but on closeouts. He held Kevin Love to 5 for 15 shooting from the field in the game. His 11 defensive rebounds capped off some good defensive stops for his team.

He’s got an interesting matchup tonight with Paul Millsap and Nik Jokic, the latter of whom dominated him with a 40-point performance at The Garden last season. Both teams are on a back-to-back, so this will be a good test of that endurance KP worked on this offseason.

5. Talk about dominating a matchup, how about what Enes Kanter did at the center spot? Kanter put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while Tristan Thompson had 1 point and did not record a single rebound in the game. Kanter’s energy at the start of games continues to be valuable. He is in attack mode from the very beginning on offense and tries to establish his matchup. It’s as if he has something to prove every night when the ball is tipped.

So as the Knicks take on Denver’s front line of Millsap/Jokic, where should we rank the Knicks’ front line of Porzingis/Kanter? Wally Szczerbiak and I were discussing it on the train home after the game. I would say the standard for the best 4-5 combo in the NBA has to be Anthony Davis/DeMarcus Cousins of the Pelicans.

Aaron Gordon and Nik Vucevic of the Magic are starting to establish themselves as a formidable front line in the East. Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond of the Pistons are solid. You also have to include Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers.

Anyone else? Tweet at me @alanhahn to discuss.

[Coverage of Knicks-Nuggets Starts Tonight at 7 PM on MSG and MSG GO]