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Kristaps Porzingis is the toast of New York these days, a superstar on the ascent racking up 30 points per game and unending hymns of praise for his work in making the New York Knicks — the long woeful, moribund and miserable Knicks, a franchise whose catastrophic scandals-to-playoff series wins ratio since 2000 has hovered somewhere around Infinity-to-1 — honestly and truly fun again. Knicks fans eager for a reason to believe in the first year post-Melo and Phil have looked at the 7-foot-3 Latvian, a combination of size and skill seemingly too good to be true, and thought, “Maybe this is what having a real superstar looks like.”
And then, on Monday night, LeBron James woke up from a three-quarter slumber, yawned, stretched, and showed New York City not only what it looks like, but what it really is.
James scored or assisted on 30 of Cleveland’s 43 fourth-quarter points on Monday, bruising his way to buckets and dropping on-time dimes to help the Cavs rise all the way out of the 23-point hole they’d dug themselves in Gotham. He took the primary defensive assignment on Porzingis, locking in to a degree he’s rarely done this season to dominate and snuff out the much taller man, keeping the Knicks’ fabled unicorn from getting the ball in advantageous situations for much of the quarter as the Cavs made their marauding comeback.
And with the score knotted at 97 with 90 seconds left, James worked a switch onto the big man, backed all the way onto 8th Avenue, and went one-on-one with one of the new young guns taking aim at his crown. Porzingis smiled at James as he isolated, knowing exactly what was coming — he’s going to push up on me, fake like he’s driving, then step back and try a 3.
But knowing what’s coming and stopping it are two very different things.
James dotted Porzingis’ eye, giving the Cavs a three-point lead with 1:23 to go and plunging a dagger into the heart of the New York faithful who had allowed themselves to think earlier in the evening that, “Hey, this could be our night.” It wasn’t their night. It wasn’t their building. It was — as it has been for the bulk of the last 15 years — LeBron’s, until he says otherwise.
The Knicks couldn’t get Porzingis free on their next possession, leading to Tim Hardaway Jr. aiming to break down the D and loft a long 2-point answer that went awry. The loose ball went out of bounds and, after a lengthy replay review, to the Cavs; a New York foul put Kyle Korver on the line for a pair of free throws that pushed the Cleveland lead to five.
New York did work out a switch on the next trip, getting Porzingis matched up with Dwyane Wade, over whom he popped a short turnaround jumper to get back within one possession with 37 seconds to go. The Knicks needed one more stop to give themselves a chance for the tie.
They got it. They just couldn’t hold onto it.
After the Knicks collapsed into the paint to influence James into a miss on his driving layup, Wade soared in from the weak side to grab the offensive board and reset the shot clock, forcing New York to foul. Korver added one last pair, allowing the Cavs to finish out a come-from-behind 104-101 win that left the crowd at Madison Square Garden in stunned silence and gave the Cavs, now back to .500 at 7-7, some of their swagger back.
The Knicks began the night going toe-to-toe with the sleepwalking Cavs, showing spirit and fight — almost literally, in a late first-quarter handicap match between James and the tag team of Enes Kanter and Frank Ntilikina — against the three-time-defending Eastern Conference champions from Cleveland. They brought some game to the party, too, with Kanter and Hardaway Jr. both turning in 20-point double-doubles through three quarters as the Knicks built a 23-point lead before a late-third Cavs surge cut the deficit to 15, 76-61, entering the final 12 minutes.
And that’s when LeBron happened.
James has operated for much of this season as a de facto point guard as the Cavs wait on the return of All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas. When he checked in after a minute of rest to start the period, he got on the ball against a Knicks defense that had cranked up its intensity through three quarters, but still consists largely of guys who don’t do such a hot job fighting through off-ball screens, and he started picking out shooters.
Well, one shooter, primarily.
Korver got on the move in the fourth quarter, and he kept moving, and the Knicks couldn’t seem to find him. LeBron could.
After going 0-for-4 through the first three quarters, Korver — a calming voice amid the Cavs’ early-season struggles — got hot in a hurry when it counted, drilling five 3-pointers on eight tries in a 19-point fourth quarter (his second of the season) to help Cleveland chop down the Knicks’ double-digit lead.
LeBron kept moving the ball, and moving himself, and getting to the front of the rim to start introducing some grumbling in what was once a raucous MSG:
A 3 by Porzingis put the Knicks back up by seven with 4:45 to go, but the Knicks just couldn’t close down the 3-point arc, losing Korver, Channing Frye (2-for-3 from deep in the fourth, as Ty Lue opted for him at the five over Kevin Love in the comeback effort) and J.R. Smith (who drilled a corner 3 right in front of the Knicks’ bench to get Cleveland within four with just over four minutes remaining) to get the Cavs within sniffing distance of the finish line. That was close enough for LeBron to close it out, and — after a somewhat trying day in the Big Apple — to do with a sneer.
James finished with 23 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, three blocks, five turnovers and one silenced crowd in 36 minutes of work. Not a bad night.
Porzingis scored 10 points of his own in the fourth quarter, but one of the league’s most efficient scorers in the season’s opening weeks needed 21 shots to score 20. He struggled mightily to find breathing room with James all over him and no premier playmaker alongside him to get him an easy look. He missed three big free throws, and he ceded the spotlight to the visiting conqueror in the game’s biggest moment.
The Latvian has had big nights in the Garden, and he will have more; he’s just 22, just beginning to get it all together, with so much runway still in front of him. When it matters most, though, preeminence tops potential. Kristaps Porzingis might be a mythical creature who’ll one day be the stuff of legend, but in that whirlwind onslaught of a fourth quarter, LeBron James reminded us all that, 15 years in, he’s still just too damn real.
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