NEW YORK — The New York Knicks aren’t interested in the type of moral victories that don’t count in the NBA standings. But if they make the playoffs next Spring, they might view their frustratingly narrow overtime loss without their best player, to the league’s third-best team on Tuesday night, as a valuable moment when their the supporting cast around star forward Carmelo Anthony learned — the hard way — what it may take to reach the postseason.
And in that regard, they might be able to thank another star forward on the other side, Kevin Durant, for teaching them that lesson.
After the Knicks (22-25) fought hard in building a surprising 11-point advantage with 9½ minutes left in the fourth quarter with Anthony (sore knee) sidelined, Durant took over, scoring 20 of his game-high 44 points to rally the Oklahoma City Thunder (34-13) to a 128-122 overtime victory at Madison Square Garden, during New York’s third overtime game in its past five contests.
Although the Knicks had six scorers in double figures, including four starters, and two reserves — with guard Langston Galloway (21 points) and forward Derrick Williams (19 points) leading the way — their earlier aggressiveness and energetic play gave way to a more stagnant offense that wasn’t sure how to close out a game in crunch time without being able to count on Anthony.
That included the play of Latvian sensation, 7-foot-3 forward Kristaps Porzingis, whom Durant — a day before providing everything down the stretch for the Thunder that the Knicks lacked — called a “unicorn,” echoing the moniker coined by ESPN’s Amin Elhassan (before the Knicks drafted Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft in April) and repeated in the words penned in July by ESPN writer D.J. Foster after he saw Porzingis play in the Las Vegas summer league.
Durant’s take to ESPN writer Royce Young on Monday, on the eve of playing against Porzingis for the first time, was meant as high praise for the rookie’s rare blend of size, athleticism and skill.
“When they made the pick, I texted [Knicks head coach Derek Fisher] immediately and said ‘I like this kid, he can play,’” Durant told Young.
“A lot of people were down on him, but he can play. He’s a skilled guy and I think we’ve gotten away from enjoying skilled players in this league. We get so many players that are athletic and big and strong, but he’s a skilled player. He can shoot, he can make the right plays, he can defend, he’s a 7-footer that can shoot all the way out to the 3-point line. That’s rare. And [he can] block shots. That’s like a unicorn in this league.”
Upon hearing that he was compared to a mystical, fictitious creature by one of the games greats, Porzingis initially laughed and responded, “I didn’t know what it meant at first, like, ‘Is that good or bad?’ K.D. was able to turn into the player that he is now and I guess he kind of sees some of that in me. That’s just, for me, an honor to hear those words from him, but I’ve just got to keep working and maybe one day get to his level.”
While Porzingis provided some early flashes of what Durant was talking about — like when he buzzed the Garden crowd yet again with another one of his now-patented one-handed follow slams (to give the Knicks a 22-20 first-quarter lead, en route to strong opening period with seven points and three rebounds — he wasn’t a huge factor the rest of the way, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots in 31 minutes.
He also went just 1-for-6 from the field after halftime, taking just two shots in the fourth quarter and only one while playing most of the overtime session (however, his one made basket came on a driving layup down the lane that gave the Knicks a 111-109 lead with 1:13 left in regulation, before New York took a four-point lead in the final minute of the period).
Conversely, Galloway scored 14 points after intermission while making some big 3-pointers in the final period of regulation, as Williams added 11 points and eight of his team-high 10 rebounds following halftime.
But like Porzingis, neither could save New York when it mattered most.
Nor could forward Lance Thomas, who in a season-high 41 minutes (starting in place of Anthony), took only one shot after the break, following a first half in which he led the Knicks with 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting.
And neither could guard Arron Afflalo, who ineffectively took over Anthony’s closer role, scoring 17 points on inefficient 6-for-21 shooting, including a closely contested, oh-so-close left baseline, turnaround jumper that went in and out with a chance to win the game at the fourth quarter buzzer.
Despite the loss, Afflalo remained reticent that the Knicks’ showed they are legitimate playoff contenders in a competitive Eastern conference.
“My take is that we’re a playoff team, period,” he said. “If we don’t make the playoffs this year, [it would be disappointing]. We belong in the playoffs.”
Asked why he felt that way, Afflalo continued, “For one, Melo was out. For two, that team (the Thunder) is one of the better teams in the league and recently, we had played some of the better teams in the league and lost games horribly. So [tonight’s effort] just lets me know and lets our team know that we’re capable of much more. It comes to a point in every season where you have to decide to be better or to just hover around .500. I feel like we’re better than that. I feel like I’m a better player than what I am. Moving forward, it’s time to show it.”
Thomas added of Afflalo’s comments, “He’s right. If we can continue to fight the way we’ve been fighting, I don’t see why we can’t make [the playoffs], but it would have to be a consistent effort. It can’t be [playing] hard [like tonight] for two games in a row and then not have that [same kind of] effort the [next] game.
“I’ve never been in the playoffs before, so my whole attention is going towards making sure we win as many games as possible to be in that position.
“If we’re going to look at something [from this game], I think we should look at how hard we played. That’s something that needs to happen every night.”
Similarly confident, Porzingis said, “We know that we gave everything we had. It’s very frustrating to lose like that. [But] that’s the effort we want to give every night. That’s the way we want to play, and playing that way, we will be able to win games.”
Earlier, Fisher commented, “I thought our guys competed from start to finish. It wasn’t a perfect game, but I thought the effort was perfect in terms of playing hard every possession. We obviously still had enough to win the game [without Anthony], we just didn’t.”
Hurting even more was that Durant and Oklahoma City got some huge help from a very questionable late call, when television replays showed that Thomas had clearly knocked the ball off of Durant’s leg and out of bounds in the Thunder backcourt. But Thomas was incorrectly called for a foul which allowed Durant to sink to free throws that gave Oklahoma City a 124-120 lead with 24.8 seconds left instead of giving New York a good chance to win or at least force a second overtime.
“I thought I had a good hand on [the ball without fouling],” Thomas said. “Whatever the ref calls is going to have to stay.”
The rest, though, Durant did without the officials’ help (even if fellow star Russell Westbrook also contributed 30 points a game-high 10 assists and eight rebounds to the Thunder’s cause), as the four-time NBA scoring champion and second-most efficient scorer (behind only Stephen Curry) this season scored 13 of Oklahoma City’s 25 fourth-quarter points and seven of the Thunder’s 15 points in overtime. Durant also sent the game to extra time, tying the game on a clutch 13-foot jumper with 16.2 seconds to go in regulation.
That impressed the 20-year-old Porzingis, who said of Durant, “I’ve been watching him, growing up now these last few years, learning his game. He just did what he does. That’s K.D.”
As for the Knicks as a whole, Williams summed the game up by saying, “It was a great performance that we can look back on. Two games prior (during a 28-points home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night), we didn’t come out and play hard and play aggressive like we did tonight. So if we can take anything from this game, I think that would be it — not necessarily the win or the loss, but when we play hard and we play aggressive like that, we can play with anybody.”
Winning more often, however, takes a little more, in the way Durant demonstrated late.
“We obviously would love to win these games, but we have some young guys that we hope [will] be with us for a long time, that are learning a lot about how to win and how to close,” Fisher said.
If and when that finally happens, eventually rising to the level of players and teams like Durant and the Thunder will no longer seem as imaginary as unicorns.