Wagner: Hornacek Finds Success with Euro Unit to Spark Knicks

Carmelo Anthony rallying the New York Knicks with a hot hand is certainly nothing new. But what head coach Jeff Hornacek discovered in his bench after that point, down the stretch of the Knicks’ 110-96 win over the Brooklyn Nets (3-5) at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, was an eye opener.

The combination of the two carried the Knicks (3-4) from 14 points down in the second quarter to as much as a 20-point lead with just over a minute remaining.

Following a rough shooting start (missing his first six shots), Anthony saw teammate Kristaps Porzingis and Nets forward Justin Hamilton (21 points each) trade 3-pointers within a dozen seconds before he scored New York’s final 14 points of the third period. That stretch began midway through the period with Anthony making six straight shots, during a personal 12-2 run, which gave the Knicks a 70-69 lead (their first since 11-9) with 2:31 left in the quarter.

“I got it going: Anthony said. “My teammates fed off of that… and then other guys got going and took over after that,” he said.

Indeed they did. After Anthony got New York over the hump, it was a unique (mostly) reserve unit of all-Europeans (sort of) which took the Knicks the rest of the way. Technically, it was four Europeans — one starter, in Porzingis (from Latvia), and off the bench, rookies Willy Hernangomez (Spain) and Mindaugas Kuzminskas (Lithuania), along with veteran forward Sasha Vujacic and Californian-born backup point guard Brandon Jennings (who after being snubbed by the Knicks in the first round NBA draft, started his professional playing career out of high school in Italy) — who sparked New York.

Mostly as a single unit and later on, with a couple of others mixed in, the five Euro-Knicks provided the perfect complement to Anthony’s earlier heroics, to finish of the Nets.

Pulling the game away with a season-high, 38-point quarter in the final period, New York was led by Hernangomez (who on 6-for-7 shooting) who scored all 14 of his points in the quarter. Porzingis added 11 in the period (on 3-of-4 shooting) as the duo matched Brooklyn’s 25 points in the quarter by themselves.

Jennings (who finished with a game-high 11 assists in becoming the first Knick with double-digit assists in a game since March 14, 2012), handed out six assists in the fourth without a turnover, while Kuzminskas added five points and Vujacic three points and three rebounds in the period.

“Our bench guys were great,” Hornacek said. “They came in and brought the energy. Melo got hot in that third quarter and was rolling… and our young guys, we always tell them to be ready. You never know, and I can’t say enough about the job they did.”


Keeping an eye on the lead, Hornacek had Anthony and other starters ready to join Porzingis, just in case, but he didn’t need them.

“The team was rolling,” Hornacek said of his experiment with the all-Euro group. “[We thought], they got us the lead, they can finish it out. It’s a long season. If we can give our starters a break there, that’s great. We were always ready, if the [lead got] down a little bit, we were gonna put the starters back [in the game].”

Starting point guard Derrick Rose (14 points on 6-of-10 shooting, but a team-worst -10) said he had no problem sitting with other starters and watching Jennings (a team-best plus-24) replace him with the game in the balance late.

“If Brandon’s playing [well], my job is to sit back and tell him what he don’t see on the floor and just try to make him better,” Rose said. “He’s playing hard, he’s getting into people on the defensive end, and that’s sparking his offense.”

For his part, Jennings shared the same team-first vision.

“We’re both here to win,” he said. “We’re together in this. It’s not, ‘I’m trying to be better than Derrick, or Derrick’s trying to be better than me.’ If we see things, we’ll talk it with each other and help each other out.”

On his play with Porzingis, Jennings said, “I try to find him to get easy buckets for him as much as possible. He’s a guy on this team that needs the ball, that has to score for us, for us to be successful. So he’s a guy that I always look for when I’m on the court.”

Regarding his play with Hernangomez, Jennings added, “He’s been great in practice. We already have chemistry in practice, so when he gets in, he knows what to do… how to get easy buckets. He’s a big spark for us.”

Overall, Jennings said simply, “The second unit, we play well together.”

Collectively, the Knicks’ defense was also markedly better after intermission, when they allowed 41 points (14 fewer than in the opening half) on half the shooting percentage (27.5 percent) they gave up (55 percent) before halftime.

Starting shooting guard Courtney Lee (13 points) divulged that Hornacek was displeased with his team’s first-half defensive effort, helping aid the New York’s better defensive play in the second half.

“Coach Jeff came in here and snapped on us,” he said. “He went off on us and we responded, especially the second group. They’re the ones who gave us some separation in the game.”

Anthony added, “The second half, we did a much better job of controlling the paint and keeping them to one shot or even [forcing] turnovers. The first half, they were getting too much access in the paint and to the rim. We made and adjustment, and it was night and day from the first half to the second half.

Now the trick for New York is to find some consistency as the Knicks struggle to get back to .500

Rose said, “I can sit here and say we will [be more consistent], but if we don’t go out there and show actions and show it by example, there’s no point in me saying that.”

That will be put to the test in a difficult way, with an intra-division, two-game, back-to-back road trip, to Boston on Friday, followed by a visit to Toronto on Saturday, is up next for the Knicks before they return home for Dallas on Monday night.


About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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