Dennis Smith Jr. Frank Ntilikina, Kristaps Porzingis
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After a night when Madison Square Garden gave Kristaps Porzingis all he could handle, the New York Knicks can now look towards the future.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NYKristaps Porzingis knows New York Knicks fans well. However, he still managed to look like a deer in headlights in front of the Madison Square Garden crowd.

The boos were constant and Porzingis struggled early in the first quarter, and later in the final minutes of the game. Despite a double-double with three blocks, it wasn’t KP’s best showing in the Garden—not by a longshot.

The last week has been nothing short of cathartic for Knicks fans. The team notched two wins against their former franchise cornerstone and on Thursday, it felt like the roof was about to pop off the Garden. The arena had the feel of a Game 7 in the playoffs, not a November game in which the Knicks were looking for their third win in 12 tries.


“I’m not going to try to win them over now,” Porzingis said. “It is what it is. I understand where they are coming from. Whatever happened is in the past. I just want to win games.”

After playing twice in the last week, the Knicks are done with the Dallas Mavericks for the season. Thus, both Porzingis and the Knicks can finally move forward and shift focus to the future.

Of course, how Porzingis performs in Dallas matters for evaluating the trade, but for those inside the Knicks organization, Thursday provided a clean break of sorts. It’s time to move on and focus on putting this roster and this season back on track.

Speaking of the future, the 106-103 victory was spearheaded by two young point guards, but they did it in very different ways.

Dennis Smith Jr. finally found his rhythm, and against his former team no less. Not long ago, Knicks fans booed Smith off the court during an uninspired effort against the Boston Celtics. Additionally, Smith recently lost his stepmother which is obviously something much bigger and more important than any basketball game.

But on Thursday, Smith was back in his element. The bouncy guard was pushing the ball in transition, attacking the basket, and looking like a legitimate NBA lead guard again.

“Game ball. I was so proud of him,” head coach David Fizdale said to reporters after the game. “He’s been through more than any of us can imagine. The kid had an incredible summer of work, and to get hurt right away in camp and get knocked from the loop, and then right when he gets back and trying to get healthy, he gets booed. That’s tough for a young kid to get booed. And then his stepmom passes.

“Now he comes back to us and I think through all of it, what I said to him, what I’ve learned in my life at least is when you go through real adversity like losing a loved one, it gives you real perspective and you stop putting so much pressure on a game. He really had a great couple of days with us.”

In 29 minutes of action, Smith notched 13 points, six rebounds, and eight assists against just two turnovers. Sure, his defense is still a work-in-progress, but having his offensive game back in order is a huge step forward for the 21-year-old.

That being said, one game is just that—one game. Smith will need to replicate this kind of effort on Saturday against the Charlotte Hornets, but it certainly felt like the young point guard exorcised some demons on Thursday.

“Grateful,” Smith said. “Glad to be playing. Glad to be out here with these guys. Glad to have people that believe in me. Just a lot of gratitude.”

But Smith wasn’t the only young point guard to electrify the Garden crowd. Frank Ntilikina, once again, ratcheted up the intensity against Luka Doncic when it mattered most. A quick look at the box score would leave many wondering how Ntilikina could have been much of a factor in the win.

He finished with five points, three rebounds, two assists, and one steal. Not to mention, early foul trouble forced Fizdale to pull back on the leash and keep Ntilikina glued to the bench for much of the game. Moreover, Doncic posted another triple-double and further cemented his place as one of the best players in the world.

But when the fourth quarter rolls around, there are few better defenders in the NBA to sic on Luka Doncic than the one they call French Prince.

Ntilikina held Doncic to just two points in the quarter and he made just about every gritty play the Knicks needed to win. That included two free throws in the final seconds to give his squad a three-point lead. For a team that talks a lot about being “dogs” and protecting the Garden, no player does it better than Ntilikina. In fact, the young point guard recently initiated a meeting with Fizdale to set the record straight.

“We had a talk about two weeks ago,” Fizdale said. “He said, ‘Coach, I’ve been through a lot in my two years and I felt like I finally understand what the NBA is about and I know I haven’t shown it yet, but I’m a dog too.’ It was so cool to hear him say that. Tonight he showed he is really a junkyard dog when it comes to competition. Again, it’s another guy who’s been through a lot.”

A little less than a year ago, Ntilikina was relegated to the bench for three letters every NBA player dreads—DNP. Fast forward to the present, and Ntilikina is one of the toughest, grimiest, and most rugged guys to put on the orange and blue.

After one of those DNPs during his sophomore season, a gaggle of reporters surrounded the then-20-year-old to pick his brain on how he was handling his relegation to the bench. It was a poignant moment that stuck with me, but not because of anything Ntilikina said. Rather, it was Tim Hardaway Jr. shouting from his locker that struck a chord.

I asked Hardaway, who went to Dallas in the Porzingis trade, about how far Ntilikina has come as a player and what that moment was really all about.

“Me just saying that, leave him alone, he’ll get through it,” Hardaway told ESNY. “This is the rough patch of the NBA. You can only go up from here.

“I’m happy that he’s taken it to heart and he’s confident.”

Fizdale and Hardaway are both on the same page. Ntilikina looks like a completely different player than he once was. Progression isn’t always linear and Ntilikina is proving that patience pays off.

Are Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina destined for greatness in New York? Maybe. Maybe not. But no matter what the future holds, the Knicks can start looking forward without constantly checking the rearview mirror. Nights like Thursday should give hope to a fanbase that could use some.

 

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