NEW YORK — Don’t bother measuring the New York Knicks’ progress solely by their season record (for now).
That alone — particularly at Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks (2-2) are winless in their first two games of the young season — won’t tell you the whole picture of the transformation which already seems to be trending in the right direction.
When New York’s best player, Carmelo Anthony, struggled with his shot in the Knicks’ season opener in Milwaukee, it was the Knicks’ second unit which carried them to a surprise blowout win.
Two games, later, Anthony returned the favor with an efficient, season-high 37 points on 18 shots, to push underdog New York to its second road win in as many games, in Washington.
On Monday night, as the Knicks — with all of their young, new pieces surrounding Anthony — returned home to face many of the same-old, steady, veteran, multiple-time champion San Antonio Spurs (3-1), Anthony was locked down by defensive specialist Kawhi Leonard, who not only scored 18 points and grabbed a team-high 14 rebounds, but limited Anthony to a very hard-earned 19 points on just 4-of-17 shooting.
Last year, and even the year before, that likely would have meant no chance in roughly a 30-point loss for a Knicks team which posted as many wins (54) over the past two seasons as it did in its division-winning campaign the year before.
But not now, not with New York being infused with a new spirit, renewed energy, and greater effort and professionalism than what Knicks fans were used to over the past two seasons.
Instead of rolling over early as Anthony missed four of five shots in the opening quarter, the Knicks took a 27-22 lead early in the second quarter. And even after the Spurs closed the half on a 25-8 run, to lead 47-35 (with Anthony shooting just 2-for-9), Anthony’s teammates complemented his 11 third-quarter points to help slice a 13-point deficit to just five points heading into the final quarter, after New York finished the period without a turnover while forcing six from the San Antonio in the stanza.
Although the Spurs ultimately led by as many as 14 points in the final minutes, the Knicks made San Antonio earn a 94-84 win.
Win or lose (with the goal obviously being the former), Knicks president Phil Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher want their team to play a certain way: be defensive minded first and foremost, always give maximum effort, be focused and follow the game plan.
Thus, gone are the erratic play and shenanigans of players like J.R. Smith and other veterans who didn’t fit that mold and might have been less than coachable because they sometimes thought they knew it all.
In their places are a young group of willing and able players, mostly off of the bench, even if they still have to go through some learning curves to improve individually before they can collectively help the Knicks start winning more frequently.
Against San Antonio, the signs were there again as 20-year-old, 7-foot-3 rookie forward Kristaps Porzingis, drafted fourth overall in late June, blocked a couple of shots while recording his first career double-double, with 13 points and a team-high 14 rebound — the most by a Knicks rookie since Timofey Mozgov grabbed the same amount of boards in 2011.
Rookie point guard Jerian Grant also added a career-high 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting while pulling down four rebounds and dishing out three assists, with only one turnover, in 23 minutes off the bench.
That, with a greater team-wide sense of urgency than what the Knicks often showed last year, kept New York within striking distance for most of a game that the Knicks would a season ago, been completely out of much sooner.
“I don’t think it was necessarily about effort,” Fisher said of the loss to the Spurs. “Overall, I thought the effort was solid.”
Yet Fisher mentioned that his developing team has to be even better in that area. “We’re not good enough yet to… have just solid effort against a good team like San Antonio,” he said. “We’re just not in that position. We have to have maximum effort every time we touch the floor.”
Noting areas of needed improvement, Fisher nonetheless highlighted some areas in which the Knicks have already started to make progress over last year.
“I thought Kris definitely showed some fight and some grit (against the Spurs),” Fisher said of Porzingis, who had a follow dunk over star forward LA Marcus Aldridge that brought the house down one home game after he delighted the crowd with a steal, spin move and finishing dunk during his MSG debut during a loss to Atlanta on Thursday night.
Critiquing Porzingis’ play, Anthony said, “I thought he had a brilliant game… I thought he played phenomenal tonight, rebounding, being aggressive on the offensive end, blocking shots defensively, so it just a matter of [him getting] more games under his belt.”
Even future Spurs Hall of Famer Tim Duncan heaped praise on Porzingis, saying, “He was impressive. He is a young guy but his skill set was there. He made some impressive plays, he showed his range.”
Noticing a change in the Knicks overall, Duncan’s teammate, 24-year-old, 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, said, “They’re finding a better rhythm coming off the bench and they’re moving the pace better.”
Tempering his judgement a bit, Fisher said of his young players, “All rookies will have moments where they look like rookies and other moments where they look like the future. We saw both of those things from Jerian tonight, just like we did from Kristaps [and] (second-year guard, via the NBA Developmental League) Langston [Galloway]. You always will from young players… but there are still a lot of things young players have to learn in terms of possession by possession basketball, and really being dialed in and locked in every possession.”
Another of those young players (who like Galloway, is a holdover from last year), forward Lance Thomas, described some key differences from last season, even at times when like against San Antonio, or in Milwaukee, Anthony has an atypical cold shooting night.
“We’re going to fight regardless of what’s happening in the game.” Thomas said. “Carmelo has a lot of confidence in us and we definitely have a lot of confidence in him. When things are difficult for him [offensively], we have guys that’ll pick up the intensity on defense to keep the game close.
“We have guys in our second group that can put the ball in the basket too, which can help bring us back from a deficit or make us pull away from another team.
“We always watch film, so regardless [of the opponent], we’re still going to learn from the game. But a loss is a loss, and that’s something that we don’t want to rack up like we did last year.”
Continuously trying to get his team to play more of a team brand of basketball, Fisher said, “Carmelo’s our main guy, a guy that we play through the most… you don’t have to rely on that though, and I think that’s what we’re learning as we kind of continue to go through this process as a team, that you’re not relying on any one guy to have a good offensive night for you to win. And so if [we] do the things that we practice, we’ll be able to get high percentage shots, and that includes Carmelo and everybody, and we’ll learn how to do that as we continue to form as a team.
“Guys believe in themselves, that’s how they get [to the NBA]. And so I think you’re always fighting that balance where you’re trying to convince everybody, not any one particular guy, that playing as a group, playing as a team, playing offense that forces the defense to guard all five people… that’s how you win…. we’re doing a pretty good job of that.”
Speaking on facing some tougher teams early in the season, and pointing to Porzingis — who as he showed by fearlessly going right at the likes of Duncan and Aldridge on Monday night — as the best example of the Knicks’ new approach, Fisher said, “Playing against the type of teams we’re playing against to start the season out, it’s going to force you to go to another level. Otherwise, you get embarrassed. The fact that we’re competing, I thought Kris was an example [of that tonight]… the guys are competing and fighting hard.”
It further said something about New York that it could hang in with San Antonio despite shooting just 36 percent, to the Spurs’ 49.4 percent.
“I believe that we’re going to be okay,” Anthony said. “Tonight, we didn’t shoot [well], percentage wise and we were still right there.”
Looking ahead, Anthony said, “We know this season, there’s going to be a lot of grind out games. We’ve just got to figure out a way to win those games. We don’t expect to get in a lot of blowouts this season [like last year].”
Asked if he could not shoulder so much of a load himself at times knowing he has a deeper and better team around him this season, Anthony said, “I don’t think I can take my foot off the pedal.”
However, he immediately added, “But the makeup of this team, [being] defensive minded, guys kind of know how to play down the stretch, [we’re] very detail-oriented… so the makeup of this team is totally different than what I’ve had over the past couple of years.”
All of which has in only four games made New York far more watchable than before, while giving Knicks fans some legitimate hope for the future that even though more significant improvement will take some time, their young team finally seems headed on a much better path.