The Knicks are entering an unusual state these days, as they’re actually giving their hardened fan-base hope.
That’s what happens when you’ve floundered in obscurity lately, missed the playoffs the last two seasons, and whiffed on every major free agent over the summer. But a funny thing has happened since the faithful vociferously booed their top pick, Kristaps Porzingis, on draft night – as the Knicks don’t seem as bad as the pundits originally thought, and Porzingis has all the makings of being the biggest steal in the franchise’s recent memory.
Yes, he was selected with the No. 4 pick – a lofty status that usually means a rookie is ready to contribute right away. But the Latvian was thought to be years away from fully developing. Yet, here he is - averaging a respectable 12 points, eight rebounds, one block, and one steal per game and providing highlight reel putback dunks on a nightly basis.
Not even team president Phil Jackson thought the rookie would be this NBA-ready, as he famously lumped Porzingis in with Shawn Bradley earlier in the summer. But Porzingis continues to ascend, much like his team.
The Knicks’ tight 111-109 win over the two-time defending Atlantic Division champion Toronto Raptors provided them with an opportunity to be a .500 squad. It’s only been eight games, but for a recently downtrodden franchise, that means progress.
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Head coach Derek Fisher has so far mixed and matched the lineups and rotation very well, as he’s utilized the entire active roster. During the win at Air Canada Centre, he played all 13 active players. And this style of play has been no fluke, particularly away from the Garden, as the Knicks (4-4) are now 3-1 on the road, with all three victories against teams that made the playoffs last season. Put into better perspective, New York didn’t get its third road win last season until Jan. 21. And their fourth win didn’t come until late November when they began the season 4-10.
Jackson and Fisher have built this team in the mold of their head coach: disciplined, hard-nosed, and not flashy. They won’t ever resemble the rough-and-tumble Knicks of Ewing, Oakley and Mason lore, but this collection of Knicks are grinding out wins and doing so with very little fanfare – save for Porzingis’s putbacks.
It’s almost as if a different hero arises during each victory. Whether it’s the brilliance of Carmelo Anthony, the youthful exuberance of Porzingis, or an unsung guy like Cleanthony Early, Langston Galloway, or Lance Thomas, New York is slowly finding a way to be relevant in the standings again.
It was Thomas’s turn, Monday night, as he played almost all of Porzingis’s minutes in the fourth quarter. Thomas capitalized on Fisher’s faith and notched 17 points, knocked down four crucial free throws in the waning seconds, and added three 3s.
Anthony said following the game that he’s “appreciating” how this season has unfolded so far, adding that it’s been “encouraging and motivating for everyone who had that experience last year, to be in the situation we’re in now …These were games we weren’t winning last year.’’
This version of the Knicks has been finding ways to win the close games this season. And for the sake of their immediate future and next June’s draft, they need to keep it up – especially since the Raptors own New York’s 2016 first-round pick.
- Guard Arron Afflalo is listed as probable for tonight’s game in Charlotte.