The “M-V-P!” chants at Madison Square Garden have normally (and rightfully) been reserved for the New York Knicks’ best player, forward Kristaps Porzingis, this season.
But shortly after Porzingis made his first two shots to stake the Knicks (11-10) to a modest 4-3 lead, the face of New York’s franchise caused MSG to hold its collective breath when the third-year Latvian star badly rolled his ankle just 2½ minutes into the Knicks’ eventual 115-86 dismantling of the Miami Heat (10-11) and did not return thereafter on Wednesday night.
While there’s never a good time for a team to see an injury to the player it pins its long-term future hopes on the most, if it had to happen, the timing couldn’t have been better with the Knicks off for three days before their next game (at home, against Orlando, on Sunday afternoon) and with center Enes Kanter returning to New York’s lineup right after sitting out the entirety of the Knicks’ second three-game losing streak of the season with back spasms.
Providing a toughness and energy which New York had sorely been lacking — in a way that Kanter has customarily done for the Knicks this season — it was Kanter’s name that was chanted in unison after New York’s heart-and-soul big man in the middle was serenaded with some “M-V-P!” himself.
The fond feelings were mutual.
“This crowd is amazing,” Kanter said. “[The fans] are the sixth man…. that’s why when we are out there, we have to do the best we can to give them our best. The most important thing is whenever you’re out there, is just [to] play hard.”
No one demonstrates that for the Knicks on a regular basis more than Kanter, whose acclaim from the fans was well deserved, especially during the first half, when Kanter had already scored 18 of his game-high and season-high 22 points (on 7-of-9 shooting) and grabbed all but one of his game-best 14 rebounds, including all six of his game-leading offensive boards.
With Kanter leading the way, Knicks fans were singing their team’s praises throughout the game as New York consistently followed a 33-22 opening quarter by outscoring Miami by a nearly identical 32-22 margin in the following period, scoring the final nine points of the first half to take a commanding 65-44 lead by halftime.
After the Heat scored the opening basket of the second half, the Knicks never allowed their advantage to get below 20 points the rest of the way while ballooning their lead to as much as 30.
Relishing his role as New York’s primary catalyst, Kanter acknowledged what his team was missing without him and the positive effect he had on his teammates.
“We did not really have that [same] energy the last three games,” Kanter said. “But tonight… everybody went out there with a lot of energy and everybody was playing with a lot of passion… that’s what I’m trying to bring.”
In his usual colorful, metaphorical way, Kanter (who said he was “90 or 95 percent” healthy against the Heat), couldn’t hold back in describing his enthusiasm to return to the court.
“I was just so hyped,” he said. “I didn’t play [the last] three games. I was just so excited, so hungry, I just wanted to go out there and bite somebody’s ear off.”
While Kanter admitted that his teammates privately told him what it meant to have him back on the floor with them, he humbly attributed the Knicks’ improved energy to more than just himself.
“I don’t want to give the credit to myself because everybody had that energy,” he said. “When [Porzingis] went down, everybody stepped up, not just me. Everybody played with a lot of heart, a lot of energy.”
Although Kanter was reluctant to boast of his significant bearing on his team’s play, others were quick to note his important impact and what they missed during his absence.
Shooting guard Courtney Lee, who complemented Kanter’s scoring the most, with 17 points (on 5-of-9 shooting), said, “[Kanter] helps out a lot, especially on the offensive end, because he’s a dominant force down there. A lot of teams are throwing different looks at him… he’s making the right reads, being aggressive, and it’s opening up the floor for the shooters.”
Head coach Jeff Hornacek added, “[Kanter’s] energy is great. He runs the floor, so that opens things up. A lot of times it gets [opponents] screwed up in transition. They’ve got to kind of hold him up a little bit and then our wings can get some good looks.
“When Enes is in the game, we probably get a little more inside stuff than we do [compared to when] Enes was out the [previous] three games.”
Sure enough, with Kanter taking advantage of Miami missing its third-leading scorer and best rebounder, center Hassan Whiteside, the Knicks held a sizable 58-32 scoring edge in the paint while dominating the glass, 52-31.
“[Kanter’s] offensive rebounding… which gives [us] second-change opportunities and his good finishes right at the basket,” Hornacek noted. “Those high-percentage shots [are big], when he gets those offensive rebounds and he’ll kick them out for 3s.
“He’s been doing a good job this year. It’s just that extra shot that you get, and that’s semi-demoralizing for a defensive team that plays good defense for 20 seconds and they force a guy to miss a shot, and then all of a sudden, Enes gets it and lays it back in. Our guys feed off of that. They have great confidence in Enes getting those boards, and whether he gets them or not, there are usually two [opposing] guys having to box him out, which frees up some of our other guys too.”
With Kanter able to provide all of that, New York was able to buck today’s normal NBA–wide trend and rely on the 3-point shot only scantly (going just 5-for-13) while instead scoring extremely efficiently from inside the arc.
Taking 11 fewer shots overall (73, vs. the Heat’s 82), the Knicks made a dozen more (44-32), shooting 65 percent (39-for-60) from 2-point range.
Thankful for Kanter picking up the slack while he was hurt, an appreciative Porzingis said, “Enes was a monster tonight. He had 18 [points] and 13 [rebounds by halftime]. He’s a monster on the boards and that gives us so much energy when he gets those second-chance opportunities for us… his presence was felt tonight by us and by the other team, so it’s good to have him back.”