Tuesday was Election Day in the U.S., and voters in the five boroughs went to the polls to cast their ballots in the race for the mayor of New York City. One citizen — evidently unwilling to support incumbent Democrat Bill de Blasio, but unswayed by Republican challenger Nicole Malliotakis — chose to write in the most popular man in Gotham these days instead.
— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) November 7, 2017
There weren’t enough like-minded voters to produce what would have been the most remarkable third-party upset in American history — de Blasio won re-election in a landslide — which is probably for the best. After all, Kristaps Porzingis is pretty busy these days making the Knicks
great respectable and fun to watch again.
Porzingis started strong and finished stronger on Tuesday night, pouring in 28 points — including seven in the final 2 1/2 minutes — to bring the Knicks back from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit for the second straight game, leading New York to a 118-113 victory over the visiting Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden.
New York didn’t make it easy, allowing a Hornets club that entered Tuesday ranked 17th out of 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession to hang a whopping 41 in the first quarter alone, as Dwight Howard bullied, Kemba Walker danced and Charlotte rained down fire from long distance (7-for-9 from deep in the opening 12 minutes). The Knicks had their own offense going, though, and kept contact until late in the second quarter, when they started turning the ball over and allowing Howard, Walker and rookie Malik Monk — who you might remember thought he was headed to New York with the No. 8 pick in the 2017 NBA draft — to hit the gas, sending Steve Clifford’s club into intermission with a 69-58 lead.
Charlotte maintained a double-figure lead heading into the fourth quarter, but the Knicks scratched their way back to within four points with seven minutes to go thanks to a strong stint by a small-ball reserve corps — center Kyle O’Quinn, forwards Lance Thomas and Doug McDermott, and the backcourt of ex-Hornet Courtney Lee and rookie Frank Ntilikina, whom the Knicks tapped over Monk at No. 8.
After the Hornets called timeout with a 104-100 lead and 6:59 to go, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek looked to get Porzingis back into the game in hopes of keeping things rolling and getting back on top for the first time since midway through the first. The 7-foot-3 Latvian didn’t get to the scorer’s table in time, though, and was forced to wait to check in until the next dead ball. In the interim, the Hornets scored five quick points on a Howard putback and a better-to-be-lucky-than-good banked-in straight-on 3-pointer by Walker that pushed the lead to 109-100 with 5:34 to go.
When Porzingis finally did check back into the game — as has happened often for the Knicks in this young season — things turned around in a hurry.
Thomas and Tim Hardaway Jr. hit back-to-back threes that promptly got the Knicks back within three. Then Porzingis started to make his presence felt, wrestling with Howard to draw a loose ball foul that seemed to anger Dwight …
kristaps just winked and smiled at dwight after drawing a BS foul
my chest pic.twitter.com/KyeQXwN1gY
— Matt Ellentuck (@mellentuck) November 8, 2017
… before spiking a Walker layup that would’ve made it a three-possession game with 3:23 to go, setting up a possession on which Howard appeared to shove him to the ground on a baseline inbounds play, allowing inbounder McDermott to slip to the corner unchecked for a open catch-and-shoot three that cut the Hornets’ lead to 111-109:
The 3s and layups and dunks and post-ups are very good, but it's cool to see Kristaps just protecting the rim and drawing so much attention. https://t.co/89eY7ef7qv
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 8, 2017
Porzingis’ ongoing wrestling match with Howard quickly paid dividends again, as the Hornets center knocked him to the ground for another loose ball foul that, with Charlotte over the limit, sent Kristaps to the line to tie the game. With the score knotted at 111 heading into the final two minutes, everybody knew where New York would look … and it didn’t matter:
Kristaps Porzingis sinks the 3 and MSG erupts! pic.twitter.com/8zXTVFSHn9
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) November 8, 2017
The quick release and dead-eye accuracy on that pick-and-pop bomb is exactly what makes Porzingis such a rare beast. It also gave the Knicks their first lead since the five-minute mark of the first quarter.
Charlotte fought back, with swingman Jeremy Lamb working his way to the free throw line for a pair to get within one, and both Walker and Marvin Williams coming up empty on would-be go-ahead 3-pointers on ensuing trips. Clinging to a one-point lead with 35 seconds to go, the Knicks needed to drain clock and get a bucket to keep Cardiac Kemba from getting the chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Porzingis did that about as well as Hornacek could’ve asked:
The Unicorn gallops to the rim for the clutch layup!
Kristaps Porzingis has MSG rockin'
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) November 8, 2017
After an initial decoy action with Thomas and Ntilikina, the rookie swings the ball to Hardaway, who brings Porzingis up for a pair of screens that eventually end up with both Williams and Monk tracking Hardaway on the right wing. He hooks a pass back to Porzingis at the top of the key, and somehow, with just three seconds left on the 24-second shot clock, the 7-foot-3 forward ball-fakes, puts it on the deck, and drives all the way through the paint to the front of the rim — never meeting Howard along the way, since Clifford had subbed him out in favor of a smaller, quicker lineup better equipped to guard the perimeter and switch screens — to unfurl a scoop finger roll layup that leaves his hand just before the clock expires.
The ball softly splashed through, putting the Knicks up 116-113, and forcing the Hornets to have to play for a three and the tie on the other end. They came up short — Monk missed his try, and the combination of Thomas and Lee trapped Walker, forcing him into a turnover that all but sealed it — and the Knicks came away with their third straight win.
Knicks were down 109-100 & called timeout to get Porzingis back in the game.
18-4 run to close it.
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) November 8, 2017
“We had people coming in and bringing us energy on defense, and we kept pushing, and we were able to break them,” Porzingis told MSG Network’s Rebecca Haarlow after the game.
Porzingis did his part to expand the fracture, continuing his stellar start to the season with 28 more points and three more blocks — and it seemed like it should’ve been more, considering he got nearly that many in this erasure of Cody Zeller alone:
Kristaps now sits behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo in the NBA in scoring, behind only Rudy Gobert and Kevin Durant in shot-blocking, and behind absolutely nobody in Knicks history when it comes to piling up points in the first 10 games of a season:
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) November 8, 2017
The ball’s moving, with Lee, Ntilikina and Jarrett Jack combining for 22 assists against just three turnovers. McDermott had his best game as a Knick, scoring 20 points in 27 minutes off the bench on 7-for-8 shooting, including 10 in the fourth-quarter comeback.
Ntilikina’s defense wasn’t quite as sticky as it was against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, but good things seem to happen when Hornacek calls the French freshman’s number. He was a plus-11 in 25 1/2 minutes on Tuesday, he’s now plus-30 in 156 minutes on the season, and the Knicks have now outscored the opposition by 38 points in 54 minutes with Porzingis and Ntilikina on the floor together.
There are plenty of caveats — a home-heavy slate that’s seen the Knicks play seven of 10 at MSG, some iffy competition in this recent run, the likelihood that a young, top-talent-light Knicks team will struggle once the long road trips start, the near-impossibility that Porzingis can keep this up, etc. But you take grace where you find it, and for now, the Knicks have won six of seven, are tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, and have begun to show a capacity to win the kinds of games (read: ones that are close late, where one or two mistakes can prove fatal) that they’ve been losing for the better part of the last 15 years.
During their post-game interview, Haarlow asked, “Is there ever a point at which you don’t think you can come back?” Porzingis smiled and offered a one-word answer: “No.” Given the groove he’s in, and the mounting support he’s getting from the rest of an increasingly interesting roster, it’s hard to blame him.
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