Top-5 Knicks Surprises So Far

For the second time this season, there was some genuine concern about the Knicks.

They had lost their third straight Monday night — a 103-91 setback to the Portland Trail Blazers — and it was one of the few times the Knicks didn’t play with a strong heartbeat.

This three-game skid had a different feel than the one that opened the season. The Knicks still were a newly opened jigsaw puzzle – lot’s of pieces, but there was no certainty it would come together.

But it did. And 21 games into the season, the Knicks stand at 11-10 after Wednesday night’s 115-86 demolition of the Miami Heat at The Garden.

So what’s allowed the Knicks to be in the thick of playoff contention in the East? Here are the team’s best surprises of the season, in order.

1 Enes Kanter

The Knicks seemingly were hard-pressed to get anything of value in return for Carmelo Anthony. It was a foregone conclusion the Knicks had to move him and every team in the league knew it.

Kanter was the centerpiece of the deal the Knicks made with the Oklahoma City Thunder and he has given this team much more than 13 points and 10 rebounds he’s averaging per game.

Kanter plays with an edge. He came to the defense of Frank Ntilikina when LeBron James got chippy with the rookie. Kanter recently was chastised for telling a teammate to ‘fight’ the opposing team.

“This is my second language,’’ Kantor explained. “When I say ‘fight’ it means compete, play hard, compete. You get a tech; you get a tech. They told me I cannot say stuff like that. I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry NBA, my fault.”

Apology accepted. There’s no place for fighting in the NBA. But man, you’ve got to like Kanter’s fire, a big reason why he’s averaging a double-double.

2 Kristaps Porzingis

The sore elbow and ankle injuries have hampered him of late. But KP’s offseason work – boxing, weights, endurance training – fueled a record-setting start to the season.

It might have helped him avoid serious injury Wednesday night after he got his right ankle crunched by Justise Winslow. Amazingly, it was a mild sprain. Porzingis was thinking of returning to the game.

At the age of 22, KP still is growing into his 7-foot-3 frame. When healthy, as he was in October and through mid-November, he’s an MVP-caliber talent.

He posted his career-high 40 points in the Nov. 5 win against the Pacers and he’s averaging 27 points on a career-best 46.4-percent shooting.

3 Tim Hardaway Jr.

It turns out all that hand-wringing over the lucrative deal the Knicks gave him was wasted emotion.

His 18.1 points per game is ninth among qualified small forwards. His $16.5 million annual salary is less than JJ Redick, Harrison Barnes and Carmelo Anthony. Who would you rather have?

At the age of 25, Hardaway Jr. is just emerging as an elite scorer. He’s completely embraced his second stint with the Knicks. He’s decided to make his home in Harlem and he’s showing flashes of a leader in the making.

When asked about the Portland loss, Hardaway Jr. said, “There’s no math or science problem to figure out why we lost the game. It was effort.”

4 Jeff Hornacek

It was almost impossible to evaluate Hornacek’s work last year. He was the equivalent of an artist being asked to work with someone else’s paintbrush.

This season it’s his team, his schemes and his decisions. He is genuine, one of the absolute must qualities to succeed as a coach.

Hornacek already has made some tough calls. Willy Hernangomez, an All-Rookie selection last season, can’t get minutes. The same with Ron Baker.

The Knicks are bound to hit a rough patch, which is when we’ll learn a lot more about Hornacek. But thus far, he’s gotten this team to play hard on most nights and made the right decisions.

5 Tie - Jarrett Jack and Doug McDermott

Jack was the fifth point guard taken in the 2005 draft and the second one standing behind Chris Paul. Signed to a one-year, non-guaranteed contract, Jack became the starter in the 4th game of the season and the Knicks started winning.

Jack’s an ideal mentor to Ntilikina. An extremely savvy pro who fulfilled a promise to his parents by getting his degree from Georgia Tech in 2014. He leads the Knicks with almost 6 assists per game.

McDermott was a secondary piece in the deal with the Thunder. He’s emerged as a solid backup to Hardaway Jr., averaging 7.7 points on 41 percent shooting on 3s.

Bottom line: Unlike the last two seasons when the Knicks got off to a strong start and faded, this team has a different feel. Kanter breathes fire. KP is a franchise player. Hardaway Jr. might become one.

There are more pleasant surprises to come.

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