NEW YORK — Kristaps Porzingis walked gingerly into the locker room, put a few tablets in his mouth, took a sip of water, tilted his head back slightly and ingested what was most likely a pain reliever.
The cause of Porzingis’ pain was the result of the fall and subsequent collision with Carmelo Anthony with 3:02 left in the 4th quarter. Thankfully, there seemed to be no serious consequences and New York will see how the 7-foot-3 rookie responds in the next few days.
But at this point the Knicks probably don’t feel much better than their rookie forward, as they dropped their second straight loss at MSG to start the season while being held without a field goal for seven minutes and two seconds during a 4th quarter in which they failed to generate any kind of flow or rhythm within their offense.
Make no mistake: That’s not to say that the Knicks didn’t have their moments or that their lack of success was fully self-inflicted.
“I think San Antonio does a great job of loading up,” Anthony described the Spurs’ help strategic defense that forced him into a rough 4-for-17 FGA, 19-point evening. “They send you right down to Tim Duncan and hope you can make something happen.”
Rarely did it work in New York’s favor, as they shot just 36% from the field and 4-for-13 (30.8%) beyond the arc.
“Usually we are not that good in the beginning,” explained Ginobili. “The last three games we did a very good job. As long as we don’t let them score in transition and get easy buckets we are playing very good five-on-five defense.”
Indeed, San Antonio is third in defensive rating (90.5) through their first four games of the season (and have held opponents to 82 PPG in three wins). The Spurs staunch defense has held the fort down as the team searches for its identity at the offensive end of the floor, where they are 15th in offensive rating (99.5).
“We’re way behind offensively,” said Gregg Popovich. “We don’t have a shooting stroke. We’re still trying to figure out where to be on the floor with the new guys. But the defense has been outstanding so far in the season.”
Consider this: Among players who defend 10+ field goal attempts per game, Leonard has allowed the lowest defended field goal percentage so far. In other words, he’s held his assignment to 2.8-of-12 FGA (22.9%) through four games, which lowers even further to 9.1% when the offensive player shoots a 3-pointer. Lenoard is also averaging 2.3 steals per game to go with 2 blocks per game.
“What he did today was incredible,” said Manu Ginobili. “He was very alert. He grabbed a bunch of rebounds. He played great D on one of the toughest guys (Carmelo Anthony) to guard in the league. He had an impressive game tonight.”
Offensively, Leonard has been more aggressive and opportunistic than in the past. He is averaging 21.3 PPG and 8.8 FGM (both of which would be career-highs) and will be relied upon to provide scoring outbursts on a more regular basis this season.
“He has to find a happy middle,” said Tony Parker regarding Leonard’s balance between playmaking and scoring.
As San Antonio moves forward, they will also rely heavily on the playmaking of their bigs. In particular, there will be a heavy dosage of the Tim Duncan-LaMarcus Aldridge high-low. Through four games, it’s clear the Duncan-Aldridge combination is coming to fruition, as Aldridge is shooting 71.4% (1.3-of-1.8 FGA per game) when he shoots after receiving a pass from Duncan.
“I haven’t had a high-low option like that since Marcus Camby,” said Aldridge, who smiled. “When I was younger we used to have the spin-lobs all season. As teams try to guard me on the high side, I think that’ll be something good for us in the high-low.”
Those types of plays will take time to develop and will happen as the Spurs’ bigs spend more time on the court together.
“It’s like playing with anybody – you have to get used to playing with each other,” said Boris Diaw. “You always hear that but what does it mean? It means play over and over and over again with each other and then at a certain point you know what he’s going to do – when he’s going to cut, when he’s going to set a screen, when he’s going to shoot the ball. We aren’t there yet because we haven’t had that many games together. We already have good chemistry on the court but now we’re learning each other’s tendencies.”
Whereas the Spurs are attempting to unearth the nuances that will lead them to success in the playoffs, New York’s springy 7-3 forward is trying to figure out his own keys to success – except Kristaps is working toward nightly consistency.
Porzingis’ 13-point, 14-rebound double-double in 24 minutes without a doubt passed the looks test with ease against a front line with at least one future HOFer. Perhaps his most impressive play of the game was less than a minute and a half into the contest, when he collected an offensive rebound and, facing pressure on the interior, dished the ball out to an Carmelo Anthony on the perimeter for his lone assist of the game and showed excellent awareness and instincts for a big man.
The rangy forward also battled on the interior for loose balls, grabbed defensive boards with force and conviction, made key stops at the defensive end (on Aldridge), played the pick-and-pop game, created offense off the bounce and had one highlight-reel worthy put-back dunk over Aldridge early in the 3rd quarter:
Porzingis also rushed catch-and-shoot opportunities, missed easy hook shots, turned the ball over, and, of course, went down for the count on an unfortunate play late in the game.
The injury was Kristaps fault – and that’s a good thing for Knicks fans because if he wasn’t playing tenaciously then he wouldn’t have been injured on the play.
“That comes with time, getting bigger, getting stronger down there,” Aldridge said regarding Kristaps’ aggression in the paint.
There’s no question that as he gets more repetitions in the weight room and on the court – similar to the Spurs bigs getting more in-game reps with each other – that he won’t get stronger, learn and become a better decision maker… In time.
Even Tim Duncan agrees.
“He was impressive,” said Duncan. “He’s young but his skill-set was there. He made some impressive plays. He showed his range. It was a great start for him.”
Jeremy Bauman works at the intersection of social media and basketball. He has an affinity for advanced statistics and how they correlate to on-court training and game situations. Follow him on Twitter here.