A “more mature” Kristaps Porzingis is returning to The Garden on Friday for the second time since the fateful trade that sent him to Dallas, shaping the direction of two franchises and turning the Latvian into an enemy among irate Knick fans.
From a basketball perspective, Porzingis remains the same as when he left New York: a tantalizing All-Star talent and an injury risk. But he said Thursday that his biggest growth has been off the court.
“I’m definitely more mature. Much more mature I would say,” he said. “Just went through a lot of things and understood a lot of things. On the court, in basketball, and also outside, even more probably outside.”
Porzingis didn’t delve into specifics but there were two public incidents unrelated to basketball in 2019 — a rape allegation and a brawl outside a bar in Latvia. There also were the backroom politics associated with his trade request from the Knicks, a saga that didn’t last very long (he was traded within hours of his meeting with the Knicks) but also kickstarted a Knicks campaign to stain the images of Porzingis and brother/agent, Janis.
Porzingis was booed vociferously in his previous appearance at MSG, when the Knicks upset the Mavericks near the beginning of last season. On Friday, the reaction will assuredly be tamer simply due to the COVID circumstances. Maximum capacity at MSG remains at just 10%, or about 2,000 fans. Unless the Garden pumps in artificial boos for Porzingis’ introduction, it can’t possibly reach the decibel levels of last season.
Regardless, according to Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, Porzingis has learned to be better handle the criticism from New Yorkers, which includes persistent social media attacks.
“New York is big, it’s Gotham, there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of media attention, there’s a lot of scrutiny,” Carlisle said. “And I think, this is my opinion, KP has really learned how to sift through all that stuff, filter it the right way and just concentrate on keeping himself ready to play and help the team.”
Porzingis, when asked to reflect on his three-plus seasons with New York, settled on a ‘What if?’ response. By the time he was traded, Porzingis hadn’t played in a calendar year because of ACL surgery.
“A lot of things happened. Injury happened. ACL. It was a tough one. I was out for a long time. Just a domino effect. Multiple things happened,” Porzingis said. “And the end result was that. Who knows how we could’ve been if I didn’t get hurt? Multiple different situations could’ve happened. But it is what it is. Now in Dallas, my second year in Dallas. I do have great memories of New York and I do miss the city, I miss the fans. I had a great time there when I was there.”
Perhaps time and Knicks success will change Porzingis’ future MSG receptions. It is already shifting conclusions about the trade. Whereas last season there was nothing positive about New York’s return in the deal, this season the Knicks can point to Julius Randle’s All-Star emergence as a benefit. It’s not a fair assessment since Randle wasn’t actually acquired in the deal (and the Knicks had enough cap space to sign before the trade), but winning has a way of skewing history.
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The Knicks (24-24) are hardly world beaters, especially coming off their defeat Wednesday to the lowly Timberwolves, but they’ve already won more games this season than the previous two. Their highest victory total with Porzingis was 32.
“They’re good, they’re playing physical,” Porzingis said about Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks iteration. “They’re playing a little bit slower but they take their time and they have a good group, they play hard defensively. Very solid team.
“They’re not a team we can overlook and think that we’re going to come in there and beat them. Especially when they’re at home. So we’re going to take them very seriously and prepare for them.”
Porzingis, meanwhile, is averaging 20.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while averaging a career-high 47.8% shooting. He’s key to the Mavericks’ championship aspirations, but carries the scary combination of being 7-3 with a pair of knee surgeries.
In Wednesday’s victory over the Celtics, Carlisle benched Porzingis for most of the fourth quarter and explained it as a matchup situation because Boston went small. Porzingis took it in stride Thursday, saying he would’ve liked to play but “I’m here to do what’s best for the team.” It was certainly the mature response.
“KP has had unique challenges. But he is a tough guy, he’s taken them all on,” Carlisle said. “The games when we hold him out (for rest on his knee), he is not asking to sit, it’s quite the other way. He really wants to play in every single game. I’ve just seen, particularly over the last year and a half since he’s been on the floor with us, he’s one of the first guys in the gym. Every single day.”