At some point (though not any time soon), injured star forward Kristaps Porzingis will be back and resume his regular role as the New York Knicks’ best player and go-to primary go-to option.
Until then, Porzingis’ absence is an opportunity for others to step up and temporarily fill that role. While head coach David Fizdale would probably like to see some of those players do that on more of a regular basis, competition for playing time and having several different players shine at various times are healthy things for a young, developing team like the Knicks as it tries to grow individually and collectively.
Lately, that has been the case for New York, which after losing a season-worst six straight games, and eight of nine, to fall to a dismal 4-14, went on a three-game winning streak against playoff-caliber teams which was as impressive as it was surprising.
Each time, new heroes emerged.
Last Wednesday, in Boston, the Knicks jumped to a 65-49 halftime lead before holding on for a 117-109 upset win. Fifth-year forward Noah Vonleh (in his first season with New York) posted the sixth of his seven double-doubles and the second of three straight double-doubles with 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting and 10 rebounds while getting 30 minutes as a starter. Rookie forward Kevin Knox (who has mostly performed worse than the Knicks had hoped off of a notably good summer league stint) contributed a helpful 11 points and a career-high nine rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench. But the big star of the night was point guard Trey Burke, who in 32 minutes off the bench, scored a game-high 29 points on 11-of-20 shooting, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range, while recording a team-best 11 assists and six rebounds. Burke also iced the game when he stared down last year’s NBA All-Rookie First Team selection Jayson Tatum, and true to his first name, hit a straight-away dagger trey to double a precarious three-point lead to 115-109 with 12 seconds left.
Two nights later, it was a couple of other Knick guards who gave New York the offensive punch it needed to turn a nine-point deficit with six minutes left into a 114-109 win at home. While Vonleh posted another double-double (with 14 points and 11 rebounds) to complement that of center Enes Kanter (17 points and 12 rebounds), the Knicks needed to pick up the slack from their leading scorer this season, starting shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who struggled to a seven-point, 2-for-15 shooting night. That’s exactly what they got from fourth-year point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who led New York with 27 points, while undrafted rookie shooting guard nearly matched that output with a career-best 25 points on efficient 9-of-12 shooting in 34 bench minutes. Trailing 101-92, the Knicks rallied with a 20-8 game-deciding run as Mudiay accounted for 15 of New York’s points and Trier the other five during that stretch.
In the final game of the winning streak, the Knicks collectively beat the Memphis Grizzlies at their own grit-and-grind game. After New York’s defense went missing (while allowing 124.8 points per game) during the Knicks’ losing streak, it showed up well in a 35-19 third quarter to 13-point third-quarter deficit into a nine-point fourth-quarter lead and ultimately, a 103-98 win, against what had been the league’s best defensive team. That time, it was Kanter who led the way with 21 points and a career-high 26 rebounds.
Despite the winning streak ending on Tuesday night, with a 115-108 loss in Detroit, the Knicks had a couple more bright spots from their bench. Once again, it was Trier, this time, with team-high 24 points on just 11 shots (he made seven while getting to the line a dozen times, making nine). Trier also had a career-best 10 rebounds for his first career double-double. The other good note for New York came from second-year shooting guard Damyean Dotson, who despite seeing his playing time go from between 28 and 41 minutes over eight straight games to between 14 and 23 minutes over the next six games, before getting benched for the entirety of the Knicks’ subsequent four games, remained ready and professional and when finally called upon again. Dotson responded with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting (while making all three of his 3-point attempts) in 23 minutes.
It remains to be seen who might string together some solid games on a more consistent basis or who else may enter the mix in opening some eyes as Fizdale attempts to develop his young roster. But as of now, several Knicks, at least at some points or others — through their flashes of good play — are making it as difficult as possible for Fizdale to choose who he should rely upon. That’s not a bad way for the Knicks to bide their time until Porzingis returns and eventually becomes New York’s focal point again.