Improved ‘D’ Gives Knicks Staying Power


1. I’m gonna leave this right here and let you visualize these types of plays for the next decade.

Frank Ntilikina has far more upside than any of us knew, but what we’re seeing early on is that he might be the perfect fit for Kristaps Porzingis. Why? His defense, which we know about, is a source of pride and defensive effort is something Porzingis has pointed to as a reason why the Knicks are having success this season.

But this could be a good fit because Ntilikina is a smart passer who is only going to get smarter with more experience and more education in the NBA game. He sees passing windows like a quarterback and has shown he can make the passes before those windows close.

And with Porzingis, it’s not a window. It’s a skylight. You just have to throw it up at the ceiling.

Ntilikina actually said he was worried this lob was too high, even for the 7’3” Porzingis, but KP assured him.

“Just pass it,” he said, “I’m going to get it.”

So LeBron James, who we will see Monday at the Garden, opted to jump into the world of hot takes by declaring Dennis Smith Jr., who had 21 points in Cleveland during Saturday’s 111-104 loss by the Mavericks, should have been a Knick.

[Watch Knicks-Cavaliers Monday at 7 PM on MSG & Download Free on MSG GO]

Smith has put up good scoring numbers this season, but his shooting percentage is almost as low as Ntilikina’s. What LeBron said was not only unfair to Ntilikina, it also proved he’s not paying enough attention to make a credible statement.

As the great Herb Brooks once said, “Worry about your own game. There’s enough there to keep you busy.”

2. Porzingis went for 34 points playing just over 26 minutes. He had Willie Cauley-Stein in a blender and, eventually, in foul trouble. He shot over Zach Randolph. He barely broke a sweat and yet he could have gone for 50 if the game was within 10 points.

In the pregame Knicks Fix, we showed you that KP was second in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring (8.8 points per game), so there’s no reason to think he couldn’t have, at least, had another career night. But with 2:53 left in the third quarter, Jeff Hornacek summoned him to the bench with the Knicks up by 27.

After a 23-point first half, KP was definitely feeling it. “I wish I played more,” he joked, but got serious shortly after that when he admitted putting on the bubble wrap in a 30-point blowout is the right call, especially with that elbow flaring up. “Once you sit and cool down, you realize that’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Let other guys play and get more rest.”

Porzingis will get his 50-point game one day. Maybe even this season. But you don’t get greedy with the franchise player in games like this. The franchise record is 62, set by Carmelo Anthony. Could Porzingis eclipse that? With the three-ball, anything is possible. He is now averaging 30.4 points per game, which is third in the NBA behind Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.7) and James Harden (30.5).

He’s also third in the NBA with 2.3 blocks per game, which should not be overlooked because his defensive presence is also important to note. Early in the game, he stuffed a dunk attempt by Cauley-Stein, an athletic 7-footer, which shows how he is willing to challenge everything at the rim and can do it avoiding the foul trouble of earlier in his career.

3. Hornacek said something before the game that caught some people’s attention. When talking about the difference between this year’s group and last year’s team, he stated the obvious. There was “more talent” on last season’s roster, with Melo and Derrick Rose. But this year’s team has a different dynamic, even with Porzingis playing at such a high level. He may be putting up 30 a night and taking the bulk of the shots, but he’s not doing it outside of the flow of the game.

The team had 29 assists against the Kings and is now averaging 23.9 assists per game, which is the 7th best in the league. Do you know it’s been 15 years since last time the Knicks averaged 22 or more assists on the season? If I’ve written that here before I apologize, but, I mean, it’s hard to believe it’s been that long since we’ve seen that kind of ball movement.

It also leads to better and more rhythm shots, which points to the team shooting 48.2% from the field this season. They are the second-best shooting team in the NBA right now, behind only the video game-like Golden State Warriors (52.1%).

“It’s fun basketball to watch,” KP said, “and play.”

I remember Porzingis warning everyone after games early last season when the team started out 14-10 and were winning close games with their offense. He would say that it wasn’t sustainable. He recalled that after the win over the Kings.

“We played off of our talent,” he said. “We really didn’t have the fundamentals. The difference this year is we’re trying to play hard defensive all 48 minutes and we never give up.”

What KP said is for fans who are unsure whether or not to believe in this team. I hear from a lot of you who said, “I’ve been burned before.” Two years ago they were 22-22 and it fell apart. Last year they were 14-10. And while the Knicks are looking like an overachieving team, their 7-5 start definitely feels different than the last few good starts based on what KP said.

But the next five games before Thanksgiving will certainly be a test: Cavs, Jazz, at Raptors, Clippers, Raptors again. Will they still be over .500 when you carve your turkey?

4. Damyean Dotson gave the ultimate sound byte for the G-League after his 14 points-in-14 minutes effort late in the game. Dotson, a second round pick who has quickly become a player to watch among the future prospects, shot 6 for 9 from the field and made 2 of 3 from downtown. He credited his readiness to playing for the Knicks’ G-League team in Westchester the night before.

“I missed a few [in that game] I made tonight,” he said. “So I felt that game carried over to tonight and I was prepared to play.”

Dotson was 3 for 11 for Westchester in Friday’s 97-95 loss to the Grand Rapids. He had 8 points but pulled down 12 rebounds and recorded 3 steals. He’ll play again Sunday for Westchester against the Raptors affiliate.

Since you asked (OK I’m just assuming you asked), Ron Baker had 14 points in Friday’s G-League game and made 3 of 5 from three-point range. Baker has not been in the rotation much this season after a preseason ankle injury slowed him down. So the Knicks sent him to Westchester to get some game time. Isaiah Hicks, who is signed to a two-way contract, had 35 points. Trey Burke, who is not property of the NBA club, but the Knicks are watching him closely, had 11 assists.

5. This was the last game of Joakim Noah‘s suspension. Noah said all the right things on Friday about his impending return. With how well Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn have played at center and Willy Hernangomez struggling for minutes there, Noah realizes he is not entitled to minutes just because of the size of his contract. He said “whatever role” the team needs him to play, he will do it. What they need is leadership in the locker room and his defensive experience from the bench.

When he does get an opportunity to play, it will be interesting to see how he looks. Noah hasn’t played a lot of games over the last few seasons because of injury (and the suspension). But when he’s at his best, he is a terrific rebounder and an active defender.

[Robbins: Humbled Noah Seeking Redemption]

Noah will be officially back on the roster as of 5 p.m. Sunday, after the Knicks cleared a roster space for him by waiving Mindaugas Kuzminskas. Kuz appeared in just one game for a total of two minutes after he played 68 games last season as a rookie.

It’s a numbers game for the Lithuanian, who averaged 6.3 points per game last year and shot 42.8% from the field and 32.1% from three. It’s been tough to find him playing time ahead of Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas, both excellent defenders, and Doug McDermott, who arrived in the Melo trade and has proven to be a valuable player off the bench.

Michael Beasley also seems to be caught in a minutes crunch, but lately he’s getting more playing time. Beasley had 10 points off the bench against the Kings and is one of those instant offense players you may need on a given night. Outside of Porzingis (and, to a degree Tim Hardaway Jr.), the Knicks don’t have many players who can create offense for themselves. So while Beasley is on a veteran’s minimum and would not cost a lot to waive — and would not cause much of an impact in the rotation — he may have more value on the roster than Kuzminskas.

Either way, it’s a tough decision to make.

[Watch Knicks-Cavaliers Monday at 7 PM on MSG & Download Free on MSG GO]