The capper, of course, came from Kristaps Porzingis, because that’s the way it happens with the Knicks now, just about every night, in just about any circumstance you can imagine. This time, the score was tied at 111, there were just under two minutes left, and Madison Square Garden was trembling with giddiness.
The Knicks had been behind the Hornets all night, mostly by eight points, 11 points, sometimes more. Time was running thin on the shot clock. Frank Ntilikina found Porzingis behind the arc, Porzingis fired, and the crowd at Madison Square Garden, positively berserk for five solid minutes now, began to roar before the ball even left Porzingis’ hand. It was 114-111. It ended 118-113.
So Porzingis filled up another boxscore, stacked up 28 points and five rebounds and three blocks (and three turnovers), and he blew the roof off the Garden a couple of more times, and yet … was in many ways simply a celebrated role player.
Of all the good things that have happened to the Knicks during this 6-4 start to the season, better even than the thunder they’ve helped usher back to the Garden, this might have been the most profoundly hopeful development: the Knicks forged their way back into a hopeless game primarily without Porzingis.
And who saw that coming?
“We can’t always rely on KP,” coach Jeff Hornacek said, which is a nice thought but until Tuesday night seemed positively pie-eyed.
Porzingis knocked down a 10-foot jumper with 5:45 left in the third quarter, his 20th and 21st points of the night. It pulled the Knicks within seven. That was the last he was heard from for a while. He missed a 3, fumbled the ball away, came out for a breather. The Hornets built the lead: to nine, to 11, to 13, to 94-83 at the end of the period.
The Knicks came after the Hornets with their bench, with fine efforts from Doug McDermott (20 points), from Kyle O’Quinn (12 points, five rebounds, four assists), from Lance Thomas (a perfect shooting night: 1-for-1 from 2; 2-for-2 from 3; 2-for-2 from the line). They chipped away. They flailed. They got the crowd’s attention.
“We had the kind of energy,” O’Quinn said, “that makes good things happen.”
Even when Porzingis checked back in, with the Knicks still down nine, with only 5:34 left, the Knicks seemed to be working in their own parallel universe: a Thomas 3. A 3 from Tim Hardaway Jr. A McDermott 3 (which pushed the Knicks within 111-109, maybe the first moment you really saw the Knicks start to believe).
“We fought, we scrapped, we had to do whatever it took to win,” said Thomas, who was also a key factor in Sunday’s bookend comeback win against the Pacers. “Being able to find some resolve and win [the Pacers game] like that took some pressure off us in the fourth quarter, knowing we could get there.”
Said McDermott: “My teammates got me some great looks and I made some shots. It’s what I do.”
So in a way, when Porzingis was sent tumbling to the floor by Dwight Howard and walked to the line after the loose-ball foul, it almost felt like the E Street Band had somehow carried the night without the Boss but saved “Rosalita” for him. Porzingis made those free throws. He made the tie-breaker that turned 19,000 voices hoarse. And he made a deft finger roll with about a tenth of a second to spare on the shot clock. Seems like the record company called with a BIG advance.
“We were able to break them,” Porzingis said, emphasizing the we, reveling in it, actually. For as much as Porzingis enjoys New York, enjoys the Garden, enjoys performing on the big stage, he knows enough that he can’t do it as a solo act. Too often this year, it’s felt like he was playing with a hastily arranged gang of backup singers.
This time, he was part of the crowd. Good for him. Better — much, much better — for the Knicks.