Porzingis had another brilliant game at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night: 34 points on 21 shots in 27 minutes.
The only thing that prevented Porzingis from setting a career high on Saturday was the Knicks’ lead. He was removed from the game with 2:53 to go in the third quarter and the Knicks up by 28 in their eventual 118-91 victory.
When asked if he thought he could have had 40 or 45, Porzingis smiled. “Yes, yes. I felt good today. I wish I played more.”
It was another eye-opening performance in a season full of them for Porzingis. He’s scored at least 30 points in eight of 11 games. He’ll wake up on Sunday as the No. 3 scorer in the NBA, the centerpiece of a team with the fifth-best record in the East.
Porzingis has been here with the Knicks before, of course. The club was 22-22 in mid-January of his rookie season before falling apart in the midst of a Carmelo Anthony injury. Shortly thereafter, Derrick Fisher was fired. Last season, Derrick Rose, Anthony and the Knicks were 16-14 in mid-December before crumbling amid a rash of on- and off-court controversies.
Porzingis, though, sees a distinct difference between this season’s Knicks and last year’s club.
“That whole first part of the season we were playing well above .500 and we played off of our talent, just based on our energy. And we really didn’t have the fundamentals,” Porzingis said late Saturday. “I felt we really didn’t have the fundamentals as a team. And then this year the difference is we try to play hard defense for 48 minutes, we never give up. … We’re getting a lot of assists as a team; we’re playing together, we’re sharing the ball. And then everybody is involved and everybody’s dangerous. I think we have a better connection this year as a team.”
This Knicks team has shown an unselfishness and commitment to defense that hasn’t been seen in some time at Madison Square Garden. The players deserve a ton of credit for that. But so do Jeff Hornacek and his coaching staff.
Hornacek and his assistants helped the Knicks stay together amid a rocky start and speculation — here and elsewhere — about his job security if the Knicks continued to lose games.
President Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry have said they’re looking to see progress and sustained effort from the team this season — and they’ve gotten both from this group recently under Hornacek. It’s safe to say that the coach’s job is secure amid this surprising 7-5 start.
“I think he’s done a great job,” Jarrett Jack said of Hornacek, who inserted the veteran into the starting lineup after an 0-3 start. “I know for me, as someone who always has to be a kind of extension of the coach, me and him have been able to kind to develop a relationship where I can kind of read what he wants on the court and I can kind of relay it to the guys. So I think him, as well as everyone on the staff, has done a great job.”
A few things have become clear during this hot stretch for the Knicks: Hornacek’s club moves the ball pretty well — the Knicks rank seventh in assist ratio so far, per NBA.com, up from 23rd last season. And they’re playing for each other, something that’s easy to see on the defensive end.
Again, credit the players for the effort — but don’t forget about Hornacek and his staff here. Last season, the Knicks switched defensive game plans regularly, leading to confusion on that end of the ball. This season, Hornacek and his staff have implemented a more consistent approach.
“That’s huge,” Porzingis said of the new defense. “… We were confused [last season] and we didn’t have the confidence 100 percent in each other and the system. Now we’re sticking to the same thing. And we know that some games it will work better [and] some games it will work not so well, but we know if we play hard and we follow that, we feel like any game is winnable.”
That kind of optimism was hard to find in the Knicks’ locker room last month in Boston. The club had fallen to 0-3 after an embarrassing loss to the Celtics. Courtney Lee said after the loss that some of his teammates didn’t have a good grasp of plays. Tim Hardaway Jr. said the Knicks were running around without a purpose.
With a home game against the (at the time) surprising Nets, and a back-to-back coming up later that week, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if the Knicks went into a tailspin.
Here was Hornacek’s message to the club the next day: “We said it’s not going to come immediately — just play hard, continue to work and we’ll continue to put things in and focus on what we do.”
What followed was consecutive wins over the Nets, Cavaliers and Nuggets and surprising come-from-behind wins over Indiana and Charlotte. Now, the Knicks are one of the early-season surprises of the NBA.
Hardaway said Hornacek and the coaches deserve their share of credit for the turnaround.
“They’re just trying to do the best they can to build the culture,” he said. “We’ve got to find our identity and I think we’re doing that each and every step of the way … the coaching staff is doing a phenomenal job of making sure we stay grounded, making sure we’re on time, making sure that we’re on top of everything and the focus is there. I kind of feel like I’m in college a little bit because the attention to detail and the focus is at an all-time high right now, and I like that.”