1. I remember vividly when Patrick Ewing came of age as an NBA star. Over his first two seasons, Patrick had moments that showed the potential of a star-level talent, but they were often mixed with some frustration and also injuries that shortened his season. But in that third year, it started to come together. The Knicks were a young team that played hard and The Garden had that buzz again.
This feels like that.
What Kristaps Porzingis has done over these first nine games is the greatest performance to begin a season in franchise history. He hit another career-high, this time with 40 points, but it was how he scored them that makes me recall those early Ewing years. With the Knicks seemingly dead in the water down 19 points late in the third quarter on a frustrating night of missed shots and a barrage of threes by the Pacers, Porzingis scored 15 straight points as if to will the Knicks back into the game.
He was, by definition, The Man. A role many weren’t sure he was ready to fill, with the departure of Carmelo Anthony, has fit him perfectly.
“I was preparing for this,” Porzingis said.
He finished with 40 points with 6 blocks and two made threes. You know how many players in NBA history have done that in a game?
Over the last few days, Porzingis has earned the praise of opponents from Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni to Suns center Tyson Chandler. And here’s Pacers forward Thad Young, a well-respected defender in the NBA who has had great battles in the past with Melo, talking about the challenge of defending a 7-foot-3 unicorn:
“You just try to stay with him and be aggressive. But sometimes your aggressive nature gets you in trouble. It got me in trouble tonight, where he was getting and-ones, getting to the free throw line. Then when you stop crowding him, you let him get into his moves, get into the things he wants to do. Then it’s easy for him to get shots off.”
This was his seventh game over the first nine in which he’s eclipsed 30 points and his scoring average (30.2 points per game) is second in the NBA only to Giannis Antetokounmpo (31 points per game).
2. And on the other end of the floor, Porzingis’ activity has made the Knicks a better defensive team. Victor Oladipo tried to dunk on him and he tipped it away. Then Lance Stevenson rose up on the break for a shot at internet fame. It was another one of those moment’s they’ll add to KP’s all-star highlight film when he’s introduced at Staples Center in February.
“I could see it in his eyes,” Porzingis recalled of the play. “He slowed down a little bit, I slowed down a little bit and I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to meet at the rim, for sure.'”
As KP reached and squashed it like a spider on a wall. You’ll get no such moments in this house.
He’s now third in blocks (2.2 per game) in the league and in his walk-off interview with Rebecca Haarlow, he was speaking the language we love in this city: Defense.
“Honestly, I think we’re just playing with that New York mentality, that New York grit,” he said, which drew a loud roar from the crowd. “I think we’re representing the city the right way now and that’s it.”
To paraphrase the great Don Henley, we haven’t had that spirit here since 1999.
3. More defense to discuss. This could be the game we look back and remember as the night Frank Ntilikina came of age as an NBA player. How can you not like this kid? Humble, hardworking, intelligent and arms that extend out like helicopter rotors. And he’s already beloved by a room full of older brothers invested in his success.
The 19-year-old rookie played crunch time minutes and never once looked shaken by the moment. In fact, he made the biggest shot of the game — a three-pointer off a feed from Porzingis — to break a 99-all tie and give the Knicks the lead for good.
“He was playing with no fear,” Porzingis said. “That’s why I love him.”
Jeff Hornacek added, “He’s not afraid of the moment. He doesn’t look like he’s afraid of anything.”
Ntilikina had 10 points, 7 assists and 3 steals and was +12 in 23:46 of action. Expect there to be talk about Ntilikina’s readiness to move into the starting lineup, but you have to know the Knicks will be careful not to put too much pressure or expectations on him just yet. He’s developing well, but there’s no need to rush it.
4. Guess what? We have even MORE defense for you. This time it’s regarding an unsung hero of the night, Lance Thomas, who got the game ball for his effort that you could not statistically quantify outside of his game-high +23 in 16 minutes … and that pretty sweet double-pump jam down the lane (I mean who saw that coming?).
Hornacek sent Thomas into the game to lock down Victor Oladipo, who came into the game leading the Pacers with 24 points per game. Thomas and Ntilikina put a stop to the constant dribble penetration off the pick-and-roll by Oladipo and Darren Collison, which had caused so much trouble for the Knicks defense in the first half. The amount of height and length the Knicks had on the floor with Ntilikina, Thomas and even Doug McDermott for a long stretch, was a major difference-maker in this game.
The Pacers put 62 points on the Knicks in the first half by shooting threes and utilizing pick-and-roll finishes by Domantas Sabonis. But they didn’t get to 40 in the second half. Hornacek said the adjustment made in the defensive coverage had to do with when to switch on the pick-and-roll. Initially, the plan was to read and call out switches. But Hornacek removed the hesitation and told his players to just switch right away. With a big, but versatile lineup on the floor, the Knicks were able to take away what was working so well for the Pacers earlier in the game.
5. Entering this season, Enes Kanter had four games over his career in which he had recorded 18 or more rebounds. This season he already has two. Against the Pacers, Kanter pulled down 18 boards, including 7 on the offensive glass and was a +20 in 31:12.
And Kyle O’Quinn gave you 8 points and 7 rebounds in just 16:40. I just don’t see how Willy Hernangomez, an outstanding rebounder, gets into a game with the way these two have been dominating. Kanter and O’Quinn are the main reasons why the Knicks are 10th in the NBA in rebounding (46.1 per game) and 4th in Offensive Rebounding (11.3 per game).
The Knicks and Pacers were tied at 24 rebounds each at halftime, but the Knicks owned the boards in the second half by a margin of 22-10. It’s been said many times, rebounding is a critical part of good defense.
Kanter is among the NBA’s best in board work. He ranks 7th in the league with 11.3 rebounds per game and is third in Offensive Rebounding with 4.4 per game.