Tough Road Looms Ahead For Knicks


1. Jeff Hornacek hasn’t had to call out his team too often this season. In fact, there were times after games he sounded like a proud coach who loved his team and it’s potential. But after gifting yet another game to the opponent with poor play in crunch time, Hornacek’s Christmas spirit was gone.

“We weren’t totally tuned in and focused,” he said.

Hornacek pointed to evidence throughout the sloppy game, such as giving up scores four times on the same play that the coaching staff went over during the morning shoot-around. “That’s a killer,” he said.

There were also 10 points left at the free throw line. The Knicks made 18-of-28 from the line in the game, which is their third-worst effort of the season, percentage-wise (64.3%), but the most total free throws missed in a game on the season. This, by the way, is a team that went into the game as the fifth-best free-throw shooting team in the NBA at 80%.

Much like the maddening loss in Detroit, this game was a grinder. Still, the Knicks kept battling back and after trailing by nine early in the fourth quarter they managed to tie the score at 89 with 5:20 to go. But that’s where the momentum toward another home win — and a rare Christmas Day win — ended.

In the final five minutes, the Knicks missed three shots on some awkward decisions and turned the ball over. A team that had somehow built a winning record of three games over .500 is starting to unravel under pressure late in games. The last two games have seen fourth-quarter issues emerge, especially on the offensive end. They’ve had some sloppy possessions that have cost them the game.

This could be the result of a talent deficiency that is only now starting to become evident, but since he can’t do anything about the current roster, Hornacek would prefer to point to the other end of the court when it comes to fixing the issues of closing out games.

“We can’t rely on trying to outscore teams at the end of the game,” he said. “We have to lock teams up.”

2. Here’s where the Porzingis Factor comes into play. After his torrid start to the season, Kristaps Porzingis caught everyone’s attention and now team’s are game-planning to stop him. The Knicks entered the game 16-10 when he’s been in the lineup, so look no further to quantify his importance to this team. Stop Porzingis, you usually stop the Knicks.

Porzingis finished this game with 22 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocks in 34:26, which is a good-looking line. But his 6-for-19 shooting performance can’t be ignored because it continued a trend of poor shooting for the month of December.

His shooting percentage shows the affect of the physical defense he is facing. Over the last 15 games, KP is shooting just 40% from the field. Over a third of his attempts are contested shots, with defenders within 0-4 feet of him. We’re seeing more and more teams fronting him on the post so he can’t get those turn-and-shoot situations and as they front, they’re getting into his legs, which creates fatigue.

“Teams are trying to make it difficult for me,” he said. “Trying to force me to take shots I don’t want.”

The easy thing to say is that KP needs to try harder, but that’s not the answer. The Knicks need to find a way to make it easier for Porzingis. I keep making this reference, but it’s so true I need to shout it from The Garden rafters: Porzingis needs his Mark Jackson, the way Patrick Ewing did.

Jackson unlocked so much of Ewing’s game, he emerged as an MVP candidate and one of the great offensive forces of his generation. Jackson pushed the ball, got into the paint and found Ewing for easy scores to help get him in rhythm and stayed in his ear to keep the Big Fella’s confidence up.

Porzingis needs a Mark Jackson.

3. I know what you’re thinking: Why can’t Frank Ntilikina be that guy? He could be, one day, but he’s not there yet. Ntilikina’s game has been steady but there is still enough evidence that suggests it’s too soon to heap the responsibility of organizing the offense, making life easy for the star player and learn the league.

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Ntilikina has to be allowed to focus on himself and his game right now — attack more, avoid picking up cheap fouls, get more explosive to the basket, don’t pick up your dribble so early when you get pressured — so he’s right where he needs to be off the bench. I’ve mentioned Trey Burke as someone to watch on the Knicks’ G-League team, but if you bring him into this situation (which means a player would have to be cut), he would have to immediately move into the starting lineup. Otherwise, where do you play Ntilikina?

The season of 10-day contracts begins next month, so we’ll start to see more G-League call-ups and signings. And once the holiday season passes, the trade season will start to heat up.

4. If we can stay with the Ewing era parallel, we can say Porzingis has his Charles Oakley in the form of Enes Kanter. He brings toughness, bravado and a fighting spirit we haven’t seen often enough over the last 15 years.

What a performance he put up against Joel Embiid in this game with 31 points and 22 rebounds in 35:58. In fact, you’d have to go back to Ewing to find the last time a Knicks player scored at least 31 points and grabbed 22 rebounds.

Patrick did it on Feb. 23, 1997. He had his last 30-20 game as a Knick, with 34 points and 25 rebounds (and throw in 5 blocks, too) in a win over the Lakers. Ewing had eight 30-20 games as a Knick. Willis Reed had 11 of them.

Kanter plays with the same heart and determination as these men and that’s why he has so quickly won over The Garden crowd. And after the game, he sounds like he’s speaking from the fans perspective with his focus on getting this franchise back into the playoffs.

“Who cares if I get 50 points or 50 rebounds? The whole New York state wants to see us in the playoffs,” he said. “If my numbers aren’t going to put us in the playoffs, it doesn’t mean anything.”

The Knicks are promoting Kanter, Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. for the All-Star game as voting is now underway. Porzingis would seem to be a lock, even if he isn’t voted in. But as we near the mid-point of the season, shouldn’t Kanter also get strong consideration?

Here’s the issue: If the Knicks are hovering around .500 (or fall below), how can you justify them sending two players to the All-Star Game? His candidacy could be based on how the team plays over the next month.

5. And that next month is daunting. As we explained in the previous blog, the Knicks have now played 21 of their 41 home games thanks to the upcoming Grammys and Big 10 Tournament. Starting Wednesday in Chicago, the Knicks will play 16 of their next 20 games on the road.

So here we begin the moment of truth for the season.

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