The New York Knicks lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers 91-84 on Wednesday night in Cleveland. The game was closer than the score indicated, as the Knicks led 84-82 late in the fourth quarter before the Cavaliers finished with a 9-0 run. The bad news going in was that Carmelo Anthony would have to miss the game with a right ankle injury. The good news? Melo would have to miss the game with an ankle injury.
There aren’t many Knicks fans who are happy to see Melo sit — although there may be a few — but there was a silver lining to him being out: Kristaps Porzingis was allowed to be the real focal point of the offense.
At least for the first half, the plan went well. Porzingis finished the half with 16 points, including shooting 3-4 from the free throw line and 3-3 from deep. He was able to use his feet to create space offensively and had success in the pick-and-roll. In addition to the good shooting numbers, he pulled down seven first-half rebounds and the Knicks went into halftime with only a five-point deficit.
Arron Afflalo filled in his role as well, retaining the title of second-leading scorer without Melo. For many teams, and in Afflalo’s former situations, he could easily have fallen into the role of best player in the absence of a superstar offensive player like Anthony. That probably messes up the flow of the offense as a whole, but with the Latvian Lurch taking on an increased load, Afflalo was able to play within himself. His efficiency suffered without Melo next to him, but an 0-4 shooting night from deep was also a big contributor.
It’s impressive that a rookie like Porzingis is able to handle being in the spotlight so early. For someone who was supposed to be so raw, getting that responsibility over a veteran like Afflalo or a teammate like Langston Galloway who’s shouldered it before sends a huge message of confidence both to the player and the team. Galloway fell into that role for an extended stretch near the end of last season, as injuries took their toll and the team was imploding. It didn’t happen right away, but Galloway’s energy pushed that team late, and those two late wins could’ve cost the Knicks in the long run.
But luckily for New York it didn’t, and Porzingis knows the organization has confidence in him, so losing Melo doesn’t put them in panic mode. That’s important because that confidence must have been shaken by New York fans and the surrounding media, who painted a poor picture of Porzingis’s career prior to it even starting. The decision to get him the ball early and often also showed the mindset that Porzingis will be the next offensive star of the team once Melo moves on.
Unfortunately, the good times couldn’t keep rolling in the second half. The Knicks tied it up to end the third quarter and held that late lead, but Porzingis was far less effective. He didn’t get to the line, was only 1-2 from deep, and scored only seven points. It can be argued that he was less active overall, which has been a problem with him more than once this season.
Kyle O’Quinn was also missing in action with an ankle injury of his own. That forced Porzingis to log more minutes at the 5, so playing there with that pressure to score might have contributed to that rookie wall. Some may say Porzingis has hit it already, but he seems to play in spurts with everything he does. The blocks, the rebounds and the points come in bunches at times, and consistency is something that’ll come with experience. His line of 23/7/4 was great, but the Knicks don’t necessarily have the horses to fill in the blanks during those stretches without production, especially without Anthony. It’s hard to keep an 84-82 lead with four minutes to go when you can’t add to your own score.
That’s where Porzingis was lacking, but that’s expected for the rookie. The Knicks often looked to the veteran Afflalo down the stretch, and while he can cook up some instant offense and carry a team for stretches, relying on him heavily is setting him up to fail.
That’s why it was so important for fans to see Porzingis assuming that alpha-dog responsibility in Carmelo’s absence. At some point in the near future, the young Latvian will be the one counted on for crunch-time scoring.