NEW YORK — The New York Knicks’ return home from a three-game western trip to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night was ultimately about the efficiency of guard Arron Afflalo and the uncommon, all-around team play of star forward Carmelo Anthony, who is often criticized for worrying more about his own point total than anything else.
But the first-ever matchup involving last year’s NBA Rookie of the Year and the current top two favorites to receive the same award this season didn’t disappoint in that regard either — even if that trio also displayed some offensive growing pains.
Eventually, it was Afflalo’s game-high 29 points on sharp 9-of-14 shooting, along with a near triple-double (20 points, a game-best 15 rebounds and a team-high nine assists) from Anthony which kept the Knicks (12-14) from blowing a 22-point, early third-quarter lead, and hold on for a 107-102 win over the determined Minnesota Timberwolves (9-16).
Behind those efforts, the Knicks — who are only 4-12 this season when held under 100 points, improved to a vastly better 8-2 when reaching triple digits in scoring.
Yet rookie big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis put their own stamps on the game as well, as did the reigning Rookie of the Year, guard Andrew Wiggins.
Overcoming poor shooting in the first half (when Towns went just 3-for-10 while Wiggins was a dismal 4-for-14), the Timberwolves’ future picked it up in the second half and fueled a comeback which Minnesota to within as little as three points of New York in the final seconds.
Finishing as the Timberwolves’ two leading scorers, Towns made eight of 11 shots after the break to conclude the night with 25 points, while Wiggins made half of his eight second-half shots to end the game with 23 points.
After going on a sizzling five-game stretch in which he shot 38-for-62 (61.3 percent), Porzingis had 11 points and opened the scoring with a straightaway 3-pointer on his first field goal attempt. But overall, the 7-foot-3 Latvian remained in a recent shooting funk, going just 4-of-14, to put him at just 10-for-39 (25.6 percent) over his last four games.
Porzingis’ value, though, was at the other end of the floor, where in addition to altering several shots, he added to his six rebounds by tying a Knicks single-game record with seven blocked shots for a second time this season.
Six of those — four against Wiggins — came in the first half, when no one else recorded a block, as Porzingis posted a half-dozen blocks for the third time in his 26 NBA games.
The pair of quickly blossoming 20-year-olds — Towns, the 7-foot former college star at Kentucky and top overall pick in this year’s NBA draft, and Porzingis, the fourth overall pick this year — seem poised to remain at the top of the race to follow in Wiggins’ footsteps as the Rookie of the Year.
Towns is averaging 15.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while Porzingis has produced 13.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and two blocks per contest.
Each player was named his conference’s Rookie of the Month (for games played in October and November), Towns for the Western Conference, and Porzingis in the Eastern Conference.
And each was highly complimentary of the other.
“I’m happy to see him succeed and play like this,” Porzingis said of Towns. “He’s really playing at a high level.”
Right after the final shot of the game — which resulted in a Porzingis block on a Towns 3-point attempt just before the final buzzer – Porzingis and Towns (a Piscataway, New Jersey native, who playing in front of friends and family at the Garden for the first time as a professional) exchanged some brief pleasantries on the court.
“He just wished me good luck and to keep working and I said the same thing [for him],” Porzingis divulged.
Later, the two hinted that their initial meeting could be the first of many battles to come.
“He’s talented and proved it again this game,” Towns said of Porzingis. “He’s a versatile player and I can’t wait to be playing against him for the next 20 years.”
To that notion — with the added idea that a possible rivalry between the two might someday rival that of future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett — Porzingis responded with a smile, “That would be amazing, of course. We just came in the league. It’s our first year. That’s a dream for both of us. That’s what we want to achieve.
Continuing on what might be a budding big man rivalry, Porzingis added of Towns, “He’s really, really skilled, all around. He can shoot from outside, he can post up… he’s a better player in the post than I am. But our games are kind of similar. We both stretch the floor, we can run the floor. He’s athletic, he can block shots… and it will be fun to play against him in the future, for sure.”
Guard Ricky Rubio, a good 25-year-old talent himself (who nearly posted a quadruple-double, with nine points, 10 rebounds, a dozen assists and eight of his team’s 12 steals), said of his teammate Towns and Porzingis, “That’s a good matchup. They’re going to be in this league for a long time. Both have not just scoring, but a lot of things to bring to this game and it’s fun to watch.”
Of course, the two big men, playing in opposite conferences, will only get to play against each other twice a year. But you never know how things might change later on. Perhaps someday, they might meet in the NBA Finals, and even multiple times. But those thoughts are a long way off at the moment.
Although Porzingis said he isn’t using Towns’ play to measure his own progress, he’s doing his part to keep pace and seems to have already figured out how to adversely affect opponents’ shots defensively, while having already developed a mature approach to doing so at such a young age, with such little NBA experience thus far.
“You don’t have to block every shot,” he said. “You’ve got to make them think that you’re going to block every shot… you want to make him think about it twice and hesitate a little bit. That’s what makes them miss. That’s what I’m trying to do. Not really block everything, just be a big presence [with] my long arms, and stuff like that.”
Meanwhile, Porzingis continues to exhibit the type of maturity and work ethic which will only help him keep improving — particularly as he has only very recently begun to play more of a traditional center position after starting his NBA career out as more of a perimeter-oriented Stretch 4 forward.
Critiquing his own game, Porzingis said, “I think I’ve still got to get a lot stronger to be able to push [opposing centers] off the block and do some of the things I need to do defensively, but I’m getting there. That’s a position that I’m going to probably play a lot in the future. I’ve just got to get stronger and get adjusted to playing more as a 5 instead of a 4.”
That would greatly benefit Anthony — who has always been at his best with New York while playing at the 4 position — and in turn, the Knicks, as a whole.
However, that part is a work in progress.
“It depends on the night,” head coach Derek Fisher said. “I think we are still searching offensively… how do we take advantage of [Porzingis] at the center spot?”
Those and many other questions will be answered in time. For now, though, the future is much brighter for the two worst teams in the NBA last season (when New York was 17-65 and Minnesota a league-worst 16-66).
At 6-7 both home and away, the Knicks are already more than halfway past the 10 home wins they had last year and a win away from matching the seven road victories they had a season ago.
That amount was the fewest in the NBA, matched only by the Timberwolves, who despite a putrid 3-10 home record this season, came to New York this time as one of only seven NBA teams with a winning road record (6-5).
Yes, things are certainly looking up for both clubs since they each hit rock bottom last year. And at a time when a 6-foot-3 guard from Davidson, in the ultra-talented Steph Curry, is the reigning Most Valuable Player of the league, and when the NBA game has largely become a point guard dominated, pick-and-roll and 3-point shooting league, it’s somewhat refreshing to know that perhaps a couple of franchises on the downswing for many years might each be resurrected in large part to their gifted, young bigs.