NEW YORK — There was a lot of optimism following the New York Knicks’ season opener in Milwaukee on Wednesday night.
For one game, everything looked a world apart from New York’s franchise-worst 17-65 season last year. Even with star forward Carmelo Anthony struggling to a poor 4-for-16 shooting performance while fourth-overall pick, rookie Kristaps Porzingis, shot just 3-for-11 in his NBA debut, the Knicks (1-1) got 60 percent of their scoring (73 points) from their bench in a 25-point blowout win, as reserves Derrick Williams, Langston Galloway, Lance Thomas, Kyle O’Quinn and rookie Jerian Grant gave New York a new look in the form of a possibly viable second unit that the Knicks severely lacked last year.
Although many remain rightfully skeptical whether New York can even make the playoffs in the NBA’s watered-down Eastern Conference this season, there were an abundance of social media mentions that the only other time the Knicks won a season opener by as many points (in 1969), they went on to win their first NBA title at the end of that same season.
But for today’s Knicks -– who most certainly won’t win their next 22 games to match the 1969-70 Knicks’ 23-1 start — progress will be measured much slower and over the course of a far greater length of time, when New York will likely continue to take one step forward and at least one step back as it recovers and rebuilds toward what it hopes will be a brighter future.
That much was evident one night after the Knicks beat up on the Bucks, during New York’s home opener against last year’s Eastern Conference finalists at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
As Anthony scored an inefficient 25 points on 10-of-27 shooting, and Porzingis (10 points on 4-of-10 shooting) was mostly held in check, the Knicks’ bench (40 mostly quiet points) didn’t provide the same impact this time, during a 112-101 loss.
New York’s reserves went scoreless during a first quarter that ended with a 13-2 Atlanta run and a 30-20 Hawks lead. Although that bench briefly had its moment again, scoring the first 11 points of the second quarter (six by Galloway), to stake the Knicks to a 32-31 edge, the Hawks closed the half on a 29-12 game-deciding spurt which had New York down 61-45 at halftime.
The deficit ballooned to as much as 22 points just past the midpoint of the third quarter and the Knicks never got closer than the final margin.
If what took place in Milwaukee had created any sort of fool’s gold about how quickly New York might be able to improve and eventually contend in the East, the loss to Atlanta delivered a sobering dose of reality in an instant.
Seeing his team finish on the short end of a 36-point turnaround from the night before underscored the amount of work that head coach Derek Fisher knows it will take before his team can even think about being on par with a team like that of third-year head coach Mike Budenholzer’s.
“We saw the difference between the level that they are at right now and where we are right now,” Fisher said in comparing the Knicks and Hawks. “We’ll have to learn from it as we go forward.”
Given the way New York was quickly brought back down to Earth from what it accomplished in Milwaukee, Fisher appropriately invoked some celestial bodies as he called for patience over the natural tendency to take the Knicks’ temperature on a daily basis.
“It’s always interesting how things change,” he said. “Last night was great and the sun was up and now, all of a sudden, there’s no sun because we lost tonight. That’s the mentality that we have to get out of in this organization, everybody. We can’t go up and down with the sun and the moon one day at a time.”
Moments after Fisher’s cosmic reference in preaching a wait-and-see approach with the Knicks’ rebuild and their more immediate goal of returning to respectability, newcomer, center Robin Lopez, had his own colorful way of describing the disappointment of his first game in a Knick uniform at Madison Square Garden.
“Especially on offense, we weren’t where we wanted to be and they were taking us out of our rhythm, whereas Atlanta was kind of getting whatever it wanted,” he said. “They were able to kind of play in tuxedos a little bit.”
Lopez (who made his first three shots and finished with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting) added, “Atlanta, I feel like, they really didn’t feel us on defense.”
Not exactly how things went in Milwaukee.
“It always sucks to lose,” Porzingis reflected candidly. “It’s going to take us some time, for sure, to play great basketball.”
Providing a probable glimpse of what’s in store as New York attempts to slowly get better, Porzingis, during his regular season Garden debut, delighted the MSG crowd at one point early in the third quarter, when he stole a pass in the backcourt before the 20-year-old, 7-foot-3 Latvian native showed impressive agility with a front court spin move to lose forward Paul Millsap, just before he finished a ferocious dunk.
“There’s not a lot of 7-3 guys who can do that,” Porzingis said quietly and humbly yet proudly.
Anthony added of Porzingis, “He’s going to become a fan favorite. You can see that coming.”
Booed by Knicks fans on draft night in April, Porzingis is already starting to win over Knicks Nation.
“I guess, the fans didn’t really know me, didn’t know my game, didn’t know my personality,” Porzingis said. “Now they see that I’m really passionate about basketball. I love basketball and I love New York, so me being here is a great opportunity and I see that the fans are starting to like me. So all I’ve got to do is play hard and help the team win games.”
Noting the electric atmosphere even in a mostly easy Hawks win, Porzingis added, “It was amazing… we were down 15 and you have a good play and [the fans] are cheering for you… we were down by 15, 20 and they were still supporting, screaming, ‘DE-FENSE!’ That just shows how they are behind us and they will be able to help us win games, for sure.”
Taking a pragmatic approach to the defeat, Anthony said, “We’re going to learn from this. For the young guys that [are] on the team, it’s the first loss of many. It’s not going to be the first and last loss that we have this season. So [I hope] for them to just be cool, calm and collected and learn from this, and watch film, and as a unit, come back and try to get it done.”
Ultimately, the Knicks’ first two games figure to be an early microcosm of the likely ups and downs to come this season.
As Fisher said, “Being good takes time. It’s a process. Being great is not easy. We played against a [Hawks] team that was in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. They lost opening night a couple of nights ago, and you could pretty much anticipate that they were going to come in and play a good game tonight. We weren’t ready for it, but we will be one day.”
When that day might be looked a lot further off one night after a big win in Milwaukee. But unlike last year, the hope of seeing the sun come up and shine on the Knicks more frequently seems a little closer to the horizon.