Since the start of the holiday season, life for the Knicks has not been festive, as the squad has been reeling since their Christmas Day loss to the Boston Celtics.
Head coach Jeff Hornacek, once the toast of the town way back when the Knicks (17-20) were on a roll and among the top-four best teams in the Eastern Conference, is at wits' end trying to right the ship. He’s been experimenting with lineup changes, extending minutes for his bench players and even shortening starters’ minutes to preserve legs for down the stretch. Nothing, however, has seemingly worked, as New York has lost three of its last 10 outings. An impressive bounce-back 116-111 win in Milwaukee on Friday night is the only thing saving the squad from losing eight straight.
Saturday night’s 123-109 defeat in Indiana, though, was back to reality for the Knicks, as the defense let them down again and nobody scored more than 17 points. Hornacek dug deep into his rotation, trying to find any combination to help. He even played little-used undrafted rookie point guard Ron Baker 12 minutes, with little result (one point, two rebounds and two assists) – although Baker played a solid role down the stretch in the win at Milwaukee when he garnered six points, two rebounds and four assists in the pivotal fourth.
But while Baker won’t likely be a key cog this season, Hornacek is beginning to realize the importance of another relative unknown on his bench, forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas. The Lithuanian rookie appears to be gaining the trust of his teammates with each passing game. It started in the heartbreaking buzzer loss to the Bucks on Wednesday, when Kuzminskas shined the brightest. He played the best game of his young career to date, recording a career-high in points (15), rebounds (four) and steals (two), as he buoyed the offense for much of the second quarter. He shot 6-of-10, including two 3-pointers, in only 19 minutes of action.
He backed up that performance with a solid showing in defeat to the Pacers. Kuzminskas scored 13 points (including a three), with three rebounds and two assists in just 15 minutes. He was a big part of the near comeback and turned in an impressive plus-10 in the plus-minus category. With Carmelo Anthony dealing with a shoulder malady, and Hornacek sometimes going back to his small-ball roots and forcing Kuzminskas to play power forward at times, the rookie has played a larger role in recent games. The Lithuanian with the great nickname (“It’s ‘Cheese,’ because I’m always smiling,” he said), Kuzminskas has been playing both forward spots for the Knicks. At 6-foot-9, he’s a crafty scorer and playmaker. And by being a natural small forward, Knicks fans may want to keep an eye on his development, especially with Anthony playing hurt each night.
Anthony admitted that he’s been dealing with “bad” shoulder pain in his shooting shoulder that “needs constant attention.” So, if there comes a time for Hornacek to give the All-Star forward a rest day or if Anthony misses extended time, look for Kuzminskas to be the first forward off the bench since it’d likely be Lance Thomas stepping into Anthony’s starting spot.
Kuzminskas is taking his recent uptick in minutes in stride and is remaining an ardent student at the feet of the guys ahead of him in the rotation. He’s always quick to show reverence to Anthony for his willingness to teach him new moves and for just taking time to even talk to the rook.
“I remember first coming here, and he even asked about my Olympics and about my team,’’ Kuzminskas said, recounting his international experience when he played for Lithuania, averaging 10.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in 22 minutes per game, as his country advanced to the quarterfinals. “He’s such a big [name] player, and to know something about me before we even met … it made me feel great. Every day I pick up something from him, [and] defending him at the practices are unforgettable, priceless. To go against my position players – Carmelo and Lance Thomas – have been great lessons and huge experience that will help me in the future.’’
The future is apparently now for Kuzminskas. And Hornacek, the Knicks and their suffering fans are hoping the rookie can be a catalyst in helping the team get back on track.
- Knicks fans have had plenty to gripe about during team president Phil Jackson’s tenure, but they have to admit that he’s got a rare – and cheap – find in Kuzminskas. The 26-year-old looks like a keeper. Undrafted in 2011, he signed a three-year contract with the Knicks in July starting at the $2.8 million cap-room exception. That’s very good value for a guy who’s seemingly on the rise.