Kristaps Porzingis Continues To Dazzle, But Is It Fair To Consider the Knicks “Real” Yet?

You can hook last night’s New York Knicks’ game up to me veins now, please.

In what was almost definitely Kristaps Porzingis’ most dominant performance to date, the Knicks toppled the Indiana Pacers 108-101 in a game that featured pretty much everything a Knicks fan could want.

Fueled by Kristaps, the Knicks closed on a 25-9 run, with prized rookie Frank Ntilikina giving them the lead with 1:33 to go in the fourth quarter with a three, his second of the quarter. The run finished off a 19 point comeback and pushed the Knicks to 5-4, while the Pacers fell to 5-5.

There’s a lot to pick through here, but Kristaps is undoubtedly the story you have to lead with. He finished with a career high 40 points on 15-for-24 shooting, going 10-for-13 after a relatively slow start.

Indiana actually did a solid job on Porzingis early. Thad Young has the athleticism and size combination to match up fairly well with KP, and Young really played good defense on him for all 48 minutes. The ability Kristaps has shown so much this season and again last night, however, is that even when in his jersey, he can still get his shot off. Between Young and consistently good help defense, the Pacers played Porzingis about as well as can be expected both early on and down the stretch, and he routinely made that good defense simply not matter.

Such is the life of a 7-foot 3-inch Unicorn with a handle.

This was a genuine MVP caliber performance from KP and his seventh 30 point game of the season. In his first two season’s in the NBA, Porzingis recorded only three 30 point games in total.

When Enes Kanter said Kristaps should be an MVP candidate last week, I dismissed it as a teammates rightfully hyping up his team’s best player. Plus, Kanter was an absolute Bannerman for the Russell Westbrook MVP campaign last year, so it’s not really any surprise he would be hyping up another potential candidate.

Much like his support for Russ last year though, Kanter might be onto something here.

KP is proving to be an unstoppable offensive force for all 48 minutes and is consistently taking over games. Defensively, he personally shut the Pacers down for the entirety of the fourth quarter. He can blow past you, finish over you or pass around you and defensively, he’s showing consistency on rotations that wasn’t there for his first two years. It’s like he’s everywhere at once because, well, he is. It’s like watching a lanky, extremely tall version of LeBron James sometimes with how good he’s getting at helping his teammates out.

Plus, he’s absolutely excellent at using his long arms to help him keep up with faster matchups. Even if you beat his feet, you aren’t getting around that wingspan. It’s like an eclipse.

At the end of the day, I don’t think the Knicks will have a good enough record for Kristaps to be taken seriously as an MVP candidate. But if he can drag New York back into the playoffs while averaging 30 points a night and putting together performances like last night, I’m almost positive he’ll draw a couple votes away from Kawhi Leanord and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

This is assuming a lot remains the same over the next 70 games, but for the sake of discussion, I’m willing to include Kristaps in the conversation when it comes to MVP candidates this season. If you had told me I’d be saying that nine games in, I’d be shocked. I fully expected Porzingis to meet some more resistance than he has, everything just looks so dang easy for him! It’s likely he does eventually run into turbulence, but I think we can start talking about KP being a top three player one day.

Kristaps isn’t the only beam of light coming out of Sunday night’s win, though.

Prized rookie Frank Ntilikina has shown flashes that he is at the very least capable of playing basketball at a high level to this point, largely through his defense and passing. Although he’s been extremely cautious with choosing when to pull the trigger (a lot of the time over-so), he drained two huge three’s Sunday night, including the eventual game winner off a slick pass from a double-teamed Porzingis.

Eventually, the Knicks are going to need Ntilikina to be more aggressive and look for his shot. But for a 19-year-old rookie coming off the bench, he’s been extremely solid. If he can at least consistently make defenders pay for helping off him, like he does below, he can be a real impact player this season.

Every now and then he’ll flash a finish at the rim or pull up for a three off a screen and you’ll really see a glimmer of what Ntilikina can be. This early into his career, the fact that those glimmers occur fairly consistently is all you can ask for.

Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn have also both been pleasant suprises while simultaneously complicating coach Jeff Hornacek’s future decisions in the frontcourt. With Joakim Noah’s return on the horizon, something is going to have to give between Noah, Kanter, O’Quinn and Billy Hernangomez.

Kanter has been excellent offensively and on the glass thus far, both of which are what we expected to see. He ranks fourth in offensive rebounds and is borderline unguardable in one-on-one situations in the paint, where he shoots 72.5 percent. That mark puts him in the Anthony Davis – Dwight Howard area for big men when it comes to finishing around the rim, just for reference (Davis and Howard have 75.4 percent and 70.5 percent marks from the paint, respectively).

Courtesy of the New York Knicks and Getty Images

What has been surprising is his defense. He’s molded well with Kristaps on that end and rim protection has been a strength for this Knicks team. I still want to see Kanter’s defense hold up over the course of an 82 game season (it was mostly bad against the Pacers), but he and Porzingis could be an interesting duo moving forward if it does.

O’Quinn has been a revelation off the bench, proving Hornacek right when he went with him over the younger Hernangomez as the backup center. His defense has consistently energized the second unit, ranking him second in defensive plus/minus amongst qualifying centers, and his rebounding has been just as ferocious as Kanter’s. And, much like Kanter, he’s good at playing alongside Porzingis, especially on the defensive end.

The obvious answer here is that O’Quinn is going to be moved. At 27-years-old, he hardly fits the Knicks timeline and probably has the best trade value of anyone on this roster. Kanter has almost certainly earned the right to the starting job for the foreseeable future, leaving Noah and Hernangomez to battle it out for the backup spot.

Maybe Noah reverts to his old form, but it’s much more likely that we see a lot more of Hernangomez if O’Quinn does in fact get moved.

The Knicks are still a team largely shrouded in mystery. We’re only nine games into this thing and as much hope as the Pacers victory gives, it’s worth noting that this is the same Knicks team that went 16-13 to start the season last year and 20-20 out of the gates the year before that.

Both years, the wheels fell off the bus. Porzingis faded down the stretch, Phil Jackson consistantly put the locker room on blast and things were generally a complete mess.

With Scott Perry now in charge and Kristaps seemingly evolving before our eyes, it’s worth wondering whether or not this year’s Knicks team can break through and surprise us for 82 games.

For whatever reason, I do.

No, that doesn’t mean 60 wins and a run at the Cavs in the Conference Finals. But I do think this is a team capable of winning 40ish games and sneaking into the East’s disgusting playoff race. I exercise extreme caution in early season take-giving (see: Orlando Magic), but I really don’t think this is any type of stretch.

Kristaps is a genuine number one option on both ends of the floor, which automatically gives you a chance in virtually any game. If Hardaway Jr, Courtney Lee, Kanter and the cast around him can continue to play at a fairly high level, they’re absolutely good enough to float around .500, right?

And before you even think about it, no that is not a bad thing. As excited as I am about Luka Doncic and the other top talent in next years draft, I don’t subscribe to the “you aren’t going to win a championship so you might as well tank” theory. There’s value in getting Kristaps, Frank and the other young guys on this team playoff experience, or at the very least playoff-chase experience. Knowing how to play when the game’s matter is a skill and it has to be trained, just like anything else. Thus far, KP hasn’t gotten that chance and the longer the Knicks wait to give it to him, the more they risk losing him.

At the very least, the Knicks have to try to make this thing work. It’s entirely possible Kanter’s defense reverts to borderline useless, the defense collapses and Kristaps fades down the stretch. But for right now, as Kristaps would say, the Knicks are surviving on New York grit and that appears to be enough.

Sure, that’s almost definitely pandering… but it’s not like he’s wrong either. Get that cheap pop, Staps.

 

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