This feels like a weird thing to say given how much attention has been paid to Kristaps Porzingis since he entered the league two seasons ago, but we are just now starting to see what the big boy can do—not because he’s suddenly unearthed some skills we were previously unaware of, but because he’s finally free to deploy those skills whenever he damn well pleases.
This freedom yielded fun but shaky results in the season opener against the Thunder, which the Knicks lost 105-84 and in which Porzingis scored 31 points on 11-of-25 shooting while tossing up a few airballs. The fun has persisted since then, but now the wins are coming, too.
Porzingis has scored at least 30 points in five of the Knicks’ first six games, and he’s led them to three straight victories. Last night against the Nuggets, he scored a career-high 38 points to go along with seven rebounds and three blocks. He was efficient, too, shooting 14-of-26 and hitting four of his seven three-point attempts.
Porzingis all but buried the Nuggets in the first half, scoring 20 points and demonstrating that he’s essentially unguardable. What do you do to stop a 7-foot-3 center who can hit from a step inside the logo?
Does double-teaming him work?
No, it does not work.
Because the Knicks are the Knicks, the Nuggets didn’t stay dead. New York managed to blow a 22-point halftime lead, and in more dysfunctional years past such a bad stretch of basketball would have all but guaranteed an embarrassing home loss. But here’s the thing about having a perfectly calibrated modern NBA center who is no longer forced to defer to the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose and your team: things get functional in a hurry.
After the Knicks had committed something like their 204th turnover of the third quarter and allowed the Nuggets to tie the game at 75, Porzingis lit up the Garden with this two-play sequence:
The Knicks looked like a bunch of shitty basketball players pissing into their socks on their home floor, and then suddenly they were being rescued by a 22-year-old who suddenly looks a hell of a lot like an MVP candidate. Porzingis would go on to score 10 points in the fourth quarter, and put the Nuggets away 116-110.
There was something instructive about Porzingis having a game like this while sharing the floor with another beloved, sweet-skilled big man in Nikola Jokic. It was a reminder that, for all the talents Jokic and so many other good young players in the league currently possess, Porzingis comes from another place. His raw physical abilities are only matched by players who can reasonably be described as franchise cornerstones.
What is more encouraging than the existence of those abilities is how easily Porzingis has leveraged them into becoming an effective focal point. It wasn’t so long ago that there was reason to worry that Porzingis, finally free from the tyranny of Melo’s jab step, would make mistakes and form bad habits and join the long lineage of Knicks stars who only ever seemed capable of using their skills to create perversion. Six games into the season, such worries seem ridiculous in hindsight. Kristaps Porzingis is a 7-foot-3 center who can shoot from anywhere, pull an alley-oop down from rafters, and eat any shot that’s served to him at the rim. What’s there to fret about?