Lee & Bench Step Up After KP Exits Early

5 Thoughts on the Win:

1. Jeff Hornacek called it “a great game to watch” but it was impossible to really enjoy it without knowing exactly what is going on in Kristaps Porzingis‘ left knee. The Knicks won their third straight game and moved two games over .500 (15-13), but until a full diagnosis is revealed on Friday, any enjoyment out of a gritty, workmanlike win in Brooklyn was subdued.

“Hopefully,” Porzingis said, “it’s not too serious.”

With Tim Hardaway Jr. out and still no timetable for his return (more on that in a moment), to lose Porzingis for any stretch of games would put the season in peril.

“It shouldn’t be anything like that,” said KP, who quickly pointed out that he doesn’t have pain and tried to assure that he and the team were “just being extra cautious.”

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He took himself out of the game just 2:35 into the second half after it appeared that he took a misstep on a defensive play. But the first time he felt something in the knee was in the second quarter, he explained, when he twisted to make a pass out of a double-team to Courtney Lee.

Porzingis said he “felt my knee kind of buckle a little bit” and “felt a little pain there.” But he played through it for the rest of the half and admitted he was favoring it a lot. He surmised it may have become more of a mental issue for him.

“I had a sharp pain there,” he said, “and that’s it.”

The Knicks can only hope that’s it.

Meanwhile, Hardaway Jr. remains in a protective walking boot while he recovers from what the team has labeled a stress injury in his left leg. The two week period for re-evaluation is officially next week, but Hardaway Jr. spoke before the game he has not yet been cleared to run and said he plans to take it slow.

“It’s a stress injury, so you really can’t rush anything,” he said. “You have to let it heal on its own.”

Hardaway Jr. has been trying to maintain his conditioning by riding a stationary bike and he’s also putting in work in the weight room on upper-body strength.

Without Hardway Jr. and Porzingis, the Knicks are missing over 40 points of offense in their lineup.

2. There is no replacing that kind of a loss, but a team can collectively try to make up the difference. Over the last four games, the Knicks bench has been doing just that.

Against the Nets, we saw another 45-point performance by the bench, led by Michael Beasley, who after Porzingis went down was a huge factor in holding off the Nets. Beasley scored 11 of his 15 points in a third quarter that seemed headed for doom but ended with the Knicks holding a five-point lead.

Kyle O’Quinn had some huge minutes and posted 9 points and 10 rebounds, including six offensive boards, while Ron Baker had yet another blue-collar night of hustle stats: 2 steals, 2 blocks and offensive rebound and several floor burns.

We gushed about Frank Ntilikina after the last game and there’s more to appreciate after this one: 7 points, 8 assists, 2 steals and a +14 in 27:09, which included the entire fourth quarter and a huge three-pointer with 3:09 to go to give the Knicks a six-point advantage.

You know what’s even more exciting about the growth we’ve seen over the last week? He’s starting to show an extra gear with the dribble that we hadn’t seen earlier in the season.

So the Knicks bench over the last four games is now putting up 44.8 points per game, which is the fourth-highest production in the NBA over that stretch. They’re shooting over 50% from the field, 41% from three and have 16 steals in four games with a +17 in 85 collective minutes.

3. Just before MSG Networks sideline reporter Rebecca Haarlow could begin her walk-off interview with Courtney Lee after the game, Lee mugged for the camera and announced, “Hold on, I’m back! I’m back again! I went away for a little while, but I’m back!”

At 32, in his 10th NBA season, Lee looks as comfortable as he ever has in a role as leader and go-to scorer. He is one of the many willing mentors for Ntilikina and a voice that is clearly respected in the locker room. I’ve always called him a pro’s pro, which is, to me, the ultimate compliment. But this season he’s become even more.

After scoring 27 points in the win over the Nets, Lee is having a career-year and rarely do we see that out of players at his age. All of these stats are career-best averages for him:

13.2 points
3.5 rebounds
2.8 assists
1.4 steals
32.4 minutes

Add to that he’s shooting an incredible slash line on the season: 48.1 FG%/44.4 3PT%/93.6 FT%

4. Ask any Knicks fan what the biggest issue the team has on defense and I bet 10 out of 10 say it’s defending the three-point shot.

It seems like teams see the Knicks and just start launching threes. They still have faced the most three-point attempts per game (33.0) in the NBA and no lead is safe as a result of the three-point shot.

But about that issue in defending it. Have we seen a correction recently?

Over the last four games, the Knicks have held their opponents to 30.8% shooting from downtown, which is the second-best rate in that span. Now it should be noted that three of the four opponents (Bulls, Lakers and Nets) rank among the bottom third in the NBA in three-point percentage, but wait, there’s more …

On the season, the Knicks are 10th in the league in three-point defense at 35.9%. This stretch of four games has helped push them into the top third of the league, but so has a notable concerted effort in getting over screens and closing out.

Overall, by the way, the Knicks remain one of the top Defensive FG% teams in the league. They currently rank fourth in the NBA at 44.4%.

5. This three-game winning streak puts the Knicks two-games over .500 at 15-13, which is exactly where the team was after 28 games last season. Coincidentally, Carmelo Anthony is next up in his first return to The Garden since the trade.

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Melo and the Knicks topped off at 16-13 last season before a tough loss to the Celtics on Christmas Day. That game started a tailspin of six straight losses and nine over a 10 game stretch that torpedoed what appeared to be a promising start to the season. It ended at 31-51 with injuries taking out Porzingis and Derrick Rose at various times while Melo played through.

Two seasons ago it was a 22-22 start that buckled after a rash of injuries that cost the team Melo and Lance Thomas for long stretches of games.

So that’s what makes this a critical point of the season as Hardaway Jr. is forced to take a slow approach to his injury and Porzingis goes from escaping a serious ankle injury to now taking himself out of a game because of what he described as a sharp pain in his knee.

Of all people, it was Knick-killer Paul Pierce who Tuesday on ESPN predicted the Knicks will make the playoffs, with one caveat: “if Porzingis stays healthy.”

Thanks Paul.