NEW YORK — The Boston Celtics were the first team to break out the tactic.
It was a January night at Madison Square, and rookie big man Kristaps Porzingis, thanks to an array of deep bombs and silky jumpers, was torching the visitors to the tune of 20 first-half points. In the locker room prior to the third quarter, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens decided to try something that after the game he’d call “kind of crazy"—slotting 6”4’ guard Marcus Smart onto the Knicks’ 7”3 dynamo.
Smart responded by getting up in Porzingis’ chest. His foot speed took away the advantage Porzingis so often had when facing lumbering bigs. The comfort he had defending away from the basket was something Porzingis had rarely faced.
The Knicks tried to answer by featuring Porzingis in the post, but that didn’t work either. He struggled getting position. The few times he did get the ball, he looked unsure of how to attack. He got off just six shots in the second half and connected on only three of them.
Nearly a decade earlier, NBA coaches had discovered that smaller and quicker defenders could stifle Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki. That same strategy was now being deployed against Nowitzki’s clone.
Back then, Nowitzki responded by learning how to take what the defense was offering: If opposing coaches were going to guard him with smaller defenders, then he’d have to learn to shoot over them. And so the one-legged fadeaway, a simple move that would morph Nowitzki into an unguardable force (and, eventually, NBA champion) was born.
Porzingis knew all this. As a kid growing up in Latvia, he studied Nowitzki video clips. The Knicks even tried setting up a joint workout with two players this summer, but their respective schedules didn’t jell.
Still, Porzingis devoted time and energy over the offseason to becoming a weapon closer to the basket, to developing his own version of the one-legged fadeaway. His counters might not be as distinct as the shot Nowitzki invented, but they’ve accelerated the clock on his stardom and transformed Porzingis into a dominant offensive beast.
“He’s not just a pick-and-pop guy anymore,” Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who played with Porzingis in Spain and now serves as an advanced scout for the San Antonio Spurs, told Bleacher Report.
“Seeing the footwork he has now down there, and seeing how he’s aware of the advantage he has a 7’3” guy and that he can just turn and shoot over defenders—he’s really developing, and he’s only going to get better.”
This season, his second in the league, Porzingis is shooting a proficient 52.2 percent on post-ups and averaging just over a point per possession, which, according to NBA.com’s Synergy Sports data, places him in the 79th percentile. He’s also finishing a blistering 71.4 percent of his looks at the rim. Compare these numbers to last year when he connected on just 40.5 percent of his post-up field-goal attempts, averaged a measly 0.82 points per possession and finished in the 44th percentile, and you can see how his offseason work is paying off.
The evolution starts with the mentality he now has with the ball down on the block. Nowitzki had to get creative with his post move.
All the taller and longer Porzingis has to do is turn and shoot.
“I didn’t add 1,000 moves to my post (game), it’s just—I’m much more calm when I’m in the post, and I get the ball and take my time and turn around, nobody really gets to my shot,” Porzingis said recently. “I’m realizing how long I am and how difficult it is to bother my shot, so I think it’s more that than—obviously, I worked on my post game, but it’s more knowing how to use my length.”
Switching pick-and-rolls is no longer a viable option. Defenders guarding him now have to worry about both the ball-handler and Porzingis. This has created a plethora of pick-and-pop looks.
The Unicorn melts ICE defense https://t.co/O6VT40YJ4W2016-11-14 17:01:00
“If he can eliminate the ability to switch, that helps him but also helps the ball-handler turn the corner,” ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy told Bleacher Report in a telephone interview. “So it’s not just for him, but it makes others and the offense as a whole better, too.”
The Detroit Pistons tried putting Tobias Harris—a solid defender with the foot speed of a 2-guard and the body (6’8” and 235 pounds) of a forward—on Porzingis last week. Harris did all he could to stay glued to Porzingis’ body, waving his arms in his face. Even he, like the Mavericks during the game before, had no answers for the Dream Shake and turnaround that Porzingis has added to his game:
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“He’s been great down there,” Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek said recently. “If we can get him the ball even lower, teams are going to try to push him out as far as they can. They’re going to get physical with him. That’s where KP is going to have to bend his knees and use his footwork to get good position. And we’re continually trying to work on to make sure these guys can make passes in there.”
Porzingis focused on building strength in his legs and base this offseason—he said he put on about five pounds of muscle—but that remains one of the few areas where he still has room to improve. Defenders are still able to push him off the block, and he’s not quite strong enough to simply overwhelm smaller players with his size.
Doing so will eventually boost his free-throw total (4.2 per game) and force double-teams that could generate open looks for teammates.
Creating and maintaining position on the low block has been something Hornacek and Porzingis have worked on extensively in practices. But, as Hornacek said recently, “There are guys in this league that we say, 'If you can just get them out another three to four feet, their percentages drop way back.' For him, he’s fine taking a 15-foot shot.”
And this is where Porzingis' value as a franchise cornerstone shows itself: Everyone loves small ball, but what if you could build a team that is able to go with a space-and-pace offense while also punishing opponents for putting undersized lineups with not-so-big big men (such as the Golden State Warriors with Draymond Green) out on the floor?
To do so, you need a center who can shoot from deep, protect the rim and bully smaller defenders in the paint.
Only a handful of players in the league fit this description. That Porzingis, in his second year and just 21 years old, is already there should have Knicks fans ecstatic and the rest of the league trembling in fear.
Knicks Insider Notebook
A Ewing-Noah Reunion
The Knicks welcome the Charlotte Hornets to Madison Square Garden on Friday night. The game will be another homecoming for Hornets associate head coach Patrick Ewing, but it will hold significance for New York's new center, too.
After signing a four-year, $72 million with the Knicks this summer, Joakim Noah, who spent part of his childhood in New York City, talked about how he used to attend games in a Ewing jersey. But it turns out his affinity for the Knicks' legend goes deeper than fandom.
"My father [the tennis player Yannick Noah] had a restaurant in New York City, and Patrick would come there all the time," Noah told Bleacher Report last month. "I was really young, but one time he gave me a signed basketball."
Ewing's presence at Yannick Noah's restaurant—which Ewing says was a Peruvian joint on Manhattan's west side—was no coincidence. Both athletes were represented by the sports management firm ProServ. As time went on, Joakim and Ewing's son, Patrick Ewing Jr., became good friends. They spent summers together at a Georgetown University basketball camp, and Joakim often stayed at the Ewing family house.
"They shot around in the backyard all the time," Ewing said in a telephone interview with Bleacher Report. Asked why he never attempted to fix Noah's tornado jump shot, Ewing responded: "Hey, I just watched. I had nothing to do with that."
Ewing added that it's special seeing the kid who "used to be smaller" than his own son now playing the same position and wearing the same uniform he wore during his Hall of Fame career.
"It means a lot," he said. "This is someone who as a kid spent a lot of time in my house. I'm really happy for him and his career."
The Power of Zen
The offensive scheme isn’t the only place where Knicks team president Phil Jackson likes to leave his footprint. It turns out Jackson wants to impart his Zen ways on his team as well.
“We have mindfulness meetings every week,’’ Hornacek said Tuesday.
At one such session earlier in the season, players were handed a copy of Mindfulness on the Go, a pocket-sized book full of Zen-like exercises written by an Oregon-based meditation teacher named Jan Chozen Bays.
The book lays out 23 exercises meant to improve an individual’s mindfulness, which Bays defines as “being totally in the present moment and not distracted by noise.”
Bays, 71, lives in Oregon’s Great Vow Zen Monastery, where she also taught. Reached over the phone by Bleacher Report last week, she said she’d never met Jackson but appreciated his desire to impart her techniques, and mindfulness in general, on his players.
As a student at Swarthmore College in the 1950s, she added that she had played for the school’s JV basketball team and felt there were areas where her techniques could be applied on the court.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of how some of these players practice a million free throws a day but then can’t hit them in games,” Bays said. “That’s something I’d explore. What happens at the moment when you’re standing at the foul line and something goes off; what does it feel like in the body?
“Mindfulness is all about curiosity and investigation.”
Bays said the goal of her book is to help readers learn how to maintain serenity in and attention to the present. An example of an exercise: using your non-dominant hand during everyday tasks.
“You learn a lot by taking yourself out of your normal habits,” she said. “It helps you stay in the present moment.”
Perhaps it's Bays who's responsible for Porzingis' improved left hand.
Lee More Than Just 3s
Courtney Lee is known by most as a three-and-D guy, but he’s much more than just a standstill sniper on offense. Sure, he’s drilling 41.5 percent of the 2.5 three-pointers he’s hoisting per game, but he’s also proved to be a weapon attacking opposing defenses off the dribble.
“You’ve got to take what the defense is giving you,” Lee said this week to Bleacher Report. “Everybody wants to just shoot threes nowadays, but if the other team is guarding the line and giving up a two-point floater or a layup, you’ve got to take it.”
Lots of guys preach the importance of taking what the defense offers—but this isn't just a case of Lee spouting basketball cliches.
He usually stations himself on the weak side of the Knicks offense to provide spacing. From that spot, the man guarding him often has to sag into the paint to help out on Porzingis, Carmelo Anthony or Derrick Rose. This means Lee frequently gets to receive the ball with an off-balance defender running back out to him—an easy target for a dribble-drive.
He has an array of shots he goes to in these situations, but the one-handed running floater is one of his favorites.
“I shoot about 100 of them a day,” Lee said. “It’s always been a shot that I’ve had, and it’s available now that you got guys that are blocking shots. You’ve got to be able to get that shot over them.”
Lee then went into his typical thought process when curling off weak-side screens.
“If the defender is trailing you, you got to curl. If he shoots the gap, you’ve got the step back. And if he curls you and gets hit by the screen, you’ve got the pull-up,” he said.
“If the big man [defender] is positioned up on the floor, you’ve got to make that pass. If the big man is positioned back, and the man trailing you gets hit, you’ve got space to shoot the pull-up. But if he’s trailing you and doesn’t get hit, you’ve got the floater.”
Lee has also flashed some impressive drop-off passes to rolling bigs during recent games.
He’s averaging just 9.2 points in 30.5 minutes per night, but the Knicks offense has been better by 5.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Teams can’t be comprised solely of ball-dominant stars, so having secondary guys capable of being effective and efficient in limited opportunities can be the difference between taking part in the playoffs and watching from home.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats from NBA.com and accurate as of November 22.