Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek is still trying to figure out things as the new man in charge, but he’s at least starting to recognize that his two franchise players, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, can play together and complement one another.
Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks showed just how effective Hornacek’s offense can be when the two stars play together, move the ball around the horn, and masterfully create spacing for others. Team president Phil Jackson sat in on a players’ meeting over the weekend and reportedly stayed out of the fray, instead being an attentive listener – a good sign for those hoping he stays out of offensive matters going forward and ceases to meddle with Hornacek’s preference of keeping the offense uptempo, with a primary spotlight on his two stars.
Anthony notched a game-high 31 points on an efficient 22 shots, while Porzingis chipped in with 19 points – 14 in the first half – and 11 rebounds. Porzingis set the table with his stellar opening half, and when he fell into some foul trouble in the third quarter, Anthony took over to finish off a very good Hawks (9-4) squad in a convincing 104-94 win. The way New York (6-7) outpaced Atlanta was a great sign, as this is the same Hawks squad that currently sits second in the Eastern Conference and previously beat the conference’s top team, the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
It was the Knicks’ fourth-straight win at the Garden, as they’ve been victors in two of its last three contests. But the real story has been the way the dynamic duo is starting to play well off each other. Anthony and Porzingis accounted for 59 percent of the Knicks’ 46 first half points, showing just how dominant they can be in Hornacek’s offense. The ball movement has been crisp and the players are starting to gel offensively in recent contests, which shows that the Knicks might be capable of getting over this early-season slump and start to get on a roll – but only if Jackson stays out of it and allows Hornacek’s system to really bloom.
Porzingis is starting to blossom into an all-around forward that usually thrives in this type of system. He registered his second double-double in his last four games and held his own against All-Star forward Paul Millsap by working him inside (7-of-11 inside and midrange) and out (knocking down a three).
Anthony rarely gets credit for his passing wares, but the truth is he’s a better distributor than what’s due. He’s not to be confused with an elite facilitator, but against the Hawks he made superb “hockey assists” – passes that were to the guy who eventually got the assist.
Hornacek credited the gelling to his primary scorer, noting most everything still runs through Anthony.
“He’s still one of the best in the league at one-on-one play. We have confidence in [Anthony’s decision making],” Hornacek said, adding the more the supporting cast moves off the ball, the better the stars can perform and get easy open looks for all. “Guys tend to stand around [watching stars, but] we’re trying to get those guys to cut. … In this game, you’re trying to find who that guy is that’s going to command a double-team, and play off him.”
Anthony was the dominant scorer against Atlanta, because that’s what he does as well as anybody in the league, but it was also his ability to set up his teammates with crisp passes that kept the defense honest.
Porzingis appreciates the well-rounded game of Anthony, and the budding chemistry he’s built with the future Hall of Famer.
“Without Melo, it would be much more difficult for me to get those points. People don’t realize that,” he reasoned. “He draws so much attention, and he’s the main focus of every other team. So, that opens things up for me … without him, things would be much more difficult.”
The ball distribution and player-friendly system is what makes a Hornacek offense great. And if the star tandem have more games like the one on Sunday, the Knicks will then start to live up to its preseason expectations.
-The win was impressive, but the Knicks still rank in the bottom third of the league in most defensive categories, particularly 29th in efficiency. But for one game, they looked like a legit defensive outfit. Sunday’s effort marked just the third time this season New York held an opponent under 100 points. Atlanta also shot 40 percent from the field and 28.6 percent in 3s.
-Reserve forward Lance Thomas missed his fourth straight game on Sunday and is dealing with a bone bruise in his left ankle and plantar fasciitis in both feet. There is no timetable for his return.