Looking ahead at their schedule in the offseason, it was obvious that if the New York Knicks were to have any chance of surpassing some limited preseason expectations, they’d have to take advantage of a favorable early-season slate of home games.
Lately, the Knicks (7-5) have turned their home arena into a Garden of Eden.
Even after a spotting an early 13-2 lead to the Sacramento Kings (3-9), New York roared back with a 30-10 close to the opening quarter, en route to amassing leads of 15 points by halftime, 24 points after three quarters and as many as 33 points thereafter in a 118-91 rout at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
The win was the Knicks’ fourth straight at home after a mediocre 2-2 start at MSG, pushing them over the .500 mark (overall) after a dozen games for the first time in five years.
They also won their seventh consecutive game this season when scoring at least 100 points (after losing their first game of that kind this year). In sharp contrast, they’re 0-4 this season when held under that mark.
Once New York got going, it was easy against Sacramento, especially while being led yet again by star forward Kristaps Porzingis, who with 34 points (on 11-of-21 shooting) in just 27 minutes (already posting his fifth game this year with more points than minutes played) was well on his way to surpassing his career-high of 40 points (set six nights earlier) before he was pulled for the final 14:53.
While Porzingis singlehandedly outscored the Kings’ starters by three points, he was aided by a pair of fellow starters, shooting guard Courtney Lee (who scored a season-high 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting, including 5-of-6 from 3-point range) and center Enes Kanter (who added 17 points on 8-of-13 shooting and a game-high 13 rebounds).
After starting the season with three of five games on the road, the Knicks are seven games into a stretch of playing 16 of 22 contests at home (through Dec. 12) before the real test comes in determining just how much New York might grow during the first season of its post-Carmelo Anthony era with 27 of the following 39 games away from the Garden (through Mar. 9).
For now, the Knicks have relished playing in front of their home fans, whom they’ve greatly credited with helping them have the necessary energy to build — and hold onto — big leads at MSG this season.
Reserve center and usual key rotation player Kyle O’Quinn (two points, six rebounds in 13 minutes) noted, “We had the fans on our side and it was a good game for us. Give some credit to our defense, not letting [the Kings, who shot just 37.5 percent] get comfortable here in the Garden.
“It’s early. I think we’re riding the wave right now… the fans are helping us out big time. It’s tough to win on the road and our fans are making it tough for opposing teams. We have a [good] home court advantage and we’re really, really rolling with it… we sense the crowd all night, the way they’re showing love.”
Starting point guard Jarrett Jack (five points, a game-high six assists and two turnovers in 25 minutes) added, “We’ve been trying to establish an identity for ourselves, defensively and offensively, knowing that when [other teams] come [to the Garden] and play against the New York Knicks, it’s going to be 48 minutes of a certain type of basketball.”
In that respect, the Garden crowd has been a major factor.
“Our fans have been tremendous for us,” Jack said. “We’ve had a hell of a sixth man during this home stretch. It’s vital to protect your home court and to establish an identity [so] when somebody comes to your home court, they know what type of game is going to be played.”
Even as a rookie, who has totaled just 53 minutes in the NBA thus far (including the final 14 minutes of garbage time, during which he scored 14 points, on 6-of-9 shooting), Houston native Damyean Dotson is already impressed with how Knicks fans have helped his new team.
“This atmosphere is awesome,” he said. “I love the fans here. The energy in here is awesome. Once you hit a couple shots, the roof might blow off… it’s a great place to play, one of the best places I ever played in my life. As long as the fans are in it, I feel like we’re in it. If they’re not in it… we’ve got to bring that grit [and] grind [as] in practice. As long as we do that, this arena will be awesome.”
That type of lift has been key for a roster with several new pieces added to last year’s holdovers as the Knicks try to prove they’re significantly better than a heretofore widely anticipated lottery team for what would be a fifth straight season.
Overall, two-thirds of New York’s games this year have been decided by 13 points or more, with the Knicks splitting (4-4) those decisions. But while the Knicks are 1-3 on the road in such contests, they’re the reverse in such games at home, with the lone loss to one of the few legitimate NBA title contenders (Houston).
Besides having a strong home court advantage, head coach Jeff Hornacek emphasized the importance of Kanter, in particular, leading by example in a way for his teammates to follow suit.
“I think Enes’ energy gets to everybody,” Hornacek said of his club’s only double-digit rebounder, who has been averaging 10.6 boards per game.
“He’s a workhorse in there,” Hornacek added. “He’s not the tallest guy, he’s not the most athletic guy, but he goes after it and that sets the tone for our guys… I don’t know if it’s demoralizing for the other team, but to try to really work to keep him off the boards takes a lot of energy and it frees some of other guys to sneak in there when he’s got two guys trying to box him out. It’s huge. He runs the floor great, so it puts a lot of pressure on the other team’s big to get back with him and he just pounds [opponents]. So that physical play just permeates to [his teammates].”
Recognizing what that means for the Knicks and how he is likewise inspired by his teammates, Kanter said, “It’s important. Every time I play, my job is to just bring physicality and energy. I play with a lot of energy, so if I see somebody with a lot of energy out there, it pumps me up too, it fires me up.”
New York’s best rebounder also assured the Knicks’ best scorer (Porzingis, averaging 30.4 points per game) he’d have his back when needed.
“I told KP today, ‘Shoot it every time with confidence [because] I’m out there to get those rebounds, [so] don’t worry about it,’ and he said, ‘Okay, it’s cool.’”
As sure as Porzingis’ ability to lead the Knicks in scoring (doing so eight times in the 11 games he’s played this season) is Kanter’s effort rubbing off on the rest of the team.
“One thing’s for certain is he’s going to bring it every night,” Dotson said. “He’s going to crash the glass at both ends… he’s going to bring the toughness, the grit. You can count on Enes bringing that, so as long as he’s bringing that… the team is going to feed off it.”
With 70 games left in the season, including 37 on the road, the Knicks obviously have a lot left to prove.
But so far, they’ve successfully taken advantage of what the early schedule has afforded them. If they can continue that over the next month, it could help pave the way for what will literally be a rough road ahead with the bulk of what amounts to nearly half of their season being played in opponents’ buildings prior to closing the year with 11 of 16 games at home.
“I’ve been happy our guys have been winning at home,” Hornacek said. “It’s given us some confidence after the start we had [0-3 overall]. To come in here at the Garden, the fans have been great for [our players], the [players] comment on it and they enjoy playing here. I think it’s helped them build some confidence.”
How far that will take New York and how hungry it may keep the Knicks remains to be seen. For now, they simply hope to keep enjoying some home cooking for as long as it’ll last.