Phil Jackson said earlier this week he didn’t care whether the New York Knicks ran the triangle offense, so long as they played a defined “system of basketball.” On Wednesday night, they found one: get Kristaps Porzingis the damn ball.
The Knicks’ rising star shined brighter than ever on Wednesday, pouring in a career-high 35 points to lead New York to a 105-102 win over the Detroit Pistons at Madison Square Garden. Two nights after taking a page out of Dirk Nowitzki’s book in an impressive performance to help knock off the Dallas Mavericks, the 7-foot-3 sophomore showed plenty of moves of his own, knocking down 13 of his 22 field-goal attempts, three of his seven 3-point tries, and six of his seven free throws. Porzingis added seven rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block in 40 minutes of work, looking yet again like the kind of special mix of size and skill that can not only carry the Knicks into a brighter future, but might be ready to carry them right now.
After an opening frame that saw the hosts and the visitors trade spurts, Porzingis took the game over in the second quarter. He scored 10 straight Knicks points on four shots, key a 13-2 run that put New York on top for good:
He scored 25 in the first half, coming within four points of a new career high before intermission, to stake the Knicks to a five-point halftime lead. He bulled to the basket, created good looks out of the post, fired without hesitation after popping to the arc and, as he did in making a name for himself as a rookie last season, attacked the offensive boards with a purpose.
He did a little bit of everything, and in the process he became the first Knick to score 35 or more before the end of his age-21 season in nearly 70 years. For his efforts, Porzingis received “M-V-P” chants from the MSG faithful late in the fourth quarter, a cascade of cheers that did not go unnoticed.
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“It’s huge. It kept me going,” he told MSG Network’s Rebecca Haarlow after the game. “I got 25 at the half, and I knew I wanted to go for 40. I was gonna get 40. But I’m happy that the crowd was there supporting me, giving me energy, and we were able to get this win.”
While New York largely controlled the action, the win didn’t come without some sweaty palms. Detroit nearly vaporized an 11-point deficit in the final 4 1/2 minutes of regulation, as Pistons point guard Ish Smith, reserve big man Jon Leuer and shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all hit big late shots to cut the lead down to two at 104-102 with 31.7 seconds remaining, putting pressure on the suddenly misfiring Knicks.
After Carmelo Anthony missed a late-in-the-clock baseline jumper with seven seconds remaining, Knicks shooting guard Courtney Lee raced in to pull down the offensive rebound, forcing the Pistons to foul point guard Derrick Rose. He split a pair to give New York a three-point edge, and Caldwell-Pope’s hoped-for game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer went awry, handing the Knicks their second straight win and drop the Pistons to .500 at 6-6.
Anthony scored 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting with five rebounds, three assists and a steal, and Rose (15 points, five rebounds, three assists) and center Joakim Noah (seven points, 15 rebounds, three assists, three blocks) each chipped in to help the Knicks improve to 5-6 on the season. After the game, Porzingis was quick to credit his teammates for their contributions to his breakout night.
“[I] just try to be aggressive, and the thing is that my teammates put me in a position to do that,” he told Haarlow. “Melo, he draws a lot of attention, D-Rose, they’re able to kick the ball out to me for wide-open shots. Brandon, the same thing. It’s really the teammates that get me those open looks.”
But it’s Porzingis who’s knocking them down, and doing so at a stellar clip that likely not even the most hopeful Knicks fan would’ve projected heading into the season. Through 11 games, the Latvian is averaging 20.7 points in 32.1 minutes per game while shooting 49.7 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range (on 5.5 attempts per game) and 79.2 percent from the free-throw line. The list of 21-year-olds who have produced like that over the course of a full NBA season? It doesn’t exist.
Really, that’s fitting. After all, there isn’t a precedent for a player who’s this smooth, has this varied an offensive game at this stage of his development, can legitimately block shots and protect the rim, and is this freaking big. There’s a reason Kevin Durant called him a “unicorn” last year, and when Porzingis talks about nights like tonight just kind of happening — “A lot of stuff I worked on in the summer came out, too; some moves, without even thinking, instinctively they came out” — you can understand why everyone associated with the Knicks is positively giddy about the possibilities for the unprecedented talent they’ve got on their hands.
Hornacek on Porzingis: "He's obviously just probably scratching the surface of what he's going to become so it's going to be fun to watch."
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) November 17, 2016
Rose on KP: "It's crazy. He's in his second year…He's out here scoring 30 and he doesn't really know the NBA yet. It's scary."
— Laura Albanese (@AlbaneseLaura) November 17, 2016
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) November 17, 2016
And, judging by Wednesday’s explosion, that “whole package” includes his emerging “I’m coming to eat your soul” facial-expression game:
… and his “Hey, that guy from KISS looked pretty cool, let me try that” game:
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) November 17, 2016
… and his advancing “I’m going to talk my New York s*** to the refs” game:
… and his burgeoning “I love being loved like this so I am going to reciprocate in the showing of love” game:
Kristaps Porzingis just blocked a shot and hi-fived fans on his way down the floor, this is truly his greatest performance to date pic.twitter.com/sSc0Kgadd4
— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) November 17, 2016
He’s still got so much room to grow, but Porzingis is already establishing himself as a man in full on the NBA court, earning praise from one of the best scorers of his generation for the leaps and bounds he seems to take every time he steps on the floor.
“Brilliant,’’ said Anthony after the game, according to Marc Berman of the New York post. “He put us on his back tonight and that is something I am proud of. He looked like he was in that zone. I have seen people be in that zone. He had a bounce to him. His confidence was through the roof.’’
A Thursday night date with the struggling (to put it mildly) Washington Wizards should keep Porzingis’ self-assurance soaring, could get the Knicks back to .500, and might help an organization that has perennially seemed hell-bent on overcomplicating things find comfort for once in taking a simpler approach: give the kid the ball, and let the paramedics sort ’em out.
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