For the first two years of his NBA career, forward Kristaps Porzingis broke in the way most budding, young superstars do, quickly garnering a lot of attention around the league while being taken under the wing of an already established veteran star.
For Porzingis, that meant displaying a multitude of varied talents (which earned him the nickname “The Unicorn”) while learning and growing under one of basketball’s all-time best scorers, Carmelo Anthony, over his first two years in the NBA.
But when Anthony left a few years of exasperation behind, via a trade to Oklahoma City last month, Porzingis instantly became what Anthony was in New York — a very talented and productive face of a Knicks franchise which thus far, isn’t offering its best player much help.
On that front, it’s safe to say that a mere two games into his first season as New York’s unquestioned leader and primary offensive option, that the player Anthony turned over his reins to is already starting to gain a solid understanding of the frustrations his predecessor felt.
Two nights after he led the Knicks (0-2) with 31 points in a 21-point season-opening road loss against (ironically) Anthony’s new club, Porzingis followed that performance with a game-high 33 points only to see New York blow a 21-point late second-quarter lead in a disheartening 111-107 home opening loss to the Detroit Pistons (2-1) at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
It was the first time in Porzingis’ blossoming NBA career that he scored at least 30 points in consecutive games while marking the first time a Knick began a season that way since Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing did so 24 years earlier.
“Patrick Ewing is a legend here in New York,” Porzingis said respectfully. “I wish I could have a career like him, so it’s an honor.”
On Thursday night, Porzingis’ 19 points in the first half in Oklahoma City let the Knicks stay tied less than three minutes before halftime, before Anthony’s Thunder led by 11 points at intermission and easily pulled away in the second half.
Against Detroit, Porzingis’ hot 8-for-10 first-half shooting helped New York erase an early 9-3 deficit while propelling New York to leads of 28-19 lead after the first quarter and as much as 58-37 late in the second period before the Knicks settled for a seemingly comfortable 64-51 edge at halftime.
“I think he’s off to a great start,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said of Porzingis first two game this season.
However, like Anthony often thought during his stay with New York, Porzingis had to be wondering when (and from whom) he’d receive some much-needed assistance which ultimately turned out to be lacking.
In the season opener, only one other besides Porzingis — center Enes Kanter — (barely) reached double figures in scoring (with 10 points in his Knick debut).
While Kanter was more of a force against the Pistons, with 17 points (on 7-of-10 shooting) and 10 rebounds, and both he and Porzingis were aided up front by reserve center Kyle O’Quinn’s 15 points (on 6-of-7 shooting) and seven rebounds in 24 solid minutes, the six other Knicks who played against the Pistons totaled just 42 points on combined 13-for-44 (29.5 percent) shooting, including a damaging 5-for-23 (21.7 percent) from 3-point range (aside Porzingis’ more reliable 3-for-7 effort from behind the arc).
The biggest culprits were New York’s starting trio of guards alongside Porzingis and Kanter in the front court. That glaring deficiency was comprised of a 4-for-16 night (including 3-of-10 from 3-point range) from the Knicks high-priced offseason acquisition Tim Hardaway, Jr. (whom New York had drafted in 2013 and subsequently traded to Atlanta after two seasons) and 2-for-8 shooting from both Courtney Lee and point guard Ramon Sessions, who together, went 0-for-6 from beyond the arc.
With that group struggling, and the Knicks coming out of the locker room flat to start the second half, the Pistons scored the first even points of the third quarter, a period in which New York went the same 4-for-16 that Hardaway, Jr. shot for the game while being outscored by a decisive 28-16, with no Knick making multiple shots during the stanza.
New York also failed at the other end of the floor, where after limiting Detroit to just 7-for-22 shooting (31.8 percent) in the opening quarter, the Knicks allowed 92 points on 37-for-69 (53.6 percent) shooting.
Forward Tobias Harris led the Pistons with 31 points, but unlike Porzingis, he had a legitimate second option assisting him in center Andre Drummond, who beat New York up inside for 21 points (on 9-of-11 shooting) and a game-high 12 rebounds.
“The defense dropped a little bit,” Hornacek acknowledged. “We told our guys, ‘Defense is great, but it’s got to be for 48 minutes,’ so we’ll get better at that.”
Overconfidence played a role in the Knicks’ defensive intensity slipping, which allowed the Pistons back in the game, according to O’Quinn, Sessions and Porzingis, who also pointed to their team’s lack of a chance to gel with some of the many roster moves New York made during the offseason.
“I’m sure they thought the game was over, like we did, up that much,” O’Quinn said. “They fought, we knew they would… we thought we had this one.”
Sessions added, “They just came out aggressive. We came out a little lackadaisical, myself included… but we’ll learn from it… it’s a new cast, a new group of guys… we’ve only been together three weeks… and we’ve just got learn from our mistakes.”
Porzingis noted, “They’re a more experienced team than us. They’ve been together [for longer], and I think that was the difference.”
Focusing on the positives, Q’Quinn said, “I hate the moral victories, but we’ve got to take something out of it and we showed flashes of being a good team.”
When it came to what fell apart for the Knicks in the third quarter, playing Anthony’s old role of the primary go-to guy on a flawed team didn’t stop Porzingis from humbly placing some blame on himself.
”We settled a little too much for outside shots,” he said. “We should have stayed inside, especially me… I should have been more aggressive.”
While Porzingis seems to be an easy default option late in close games like Saturday night’s loss, Hornacek doesn’t want New York to always get into that habit each time in such a situation.
“I don’t think we should get into something where it’s one guy and he’s got to take over,” Hornacek said. “You play as a team… we don’t want to get stagnant with just one guy [to] get us some buckets [down the stretch].”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Knicks haven’t become Porzingis’ team now that Anthony is gone.
Yet, that’s not as important to Porzingis as much as New York’s collective success.
“It’s nothing that I want to force,” he said. “It has to happen naturally. I want to be the leader of the team and help the team win games. That’s the only thing on my mind. It doesn’t matter who is the face [of the franchise]. If we win, that’s all that matters, so that’s what I focus on.”
Still, there was one particular moment with the game on the line when Porzingis must have felt like Anthony, who often had trouble getting calls as a Knick, even on New York’s home floor.
Down 107-104, with 37 seconds left, Porzingis passed up an open look at a 3-pointer and drove to the basket where Drummond got away with pulling Porzingis’ arm down with one hand while blocking Porzingis’ shot with his other hand, a key play which helped Detroit secure the win.
Just one more way in which Porzingis can very likely relate to Anthony with feeling somewhat helpless right now as the Knicks’ best player.