Over the past few weeks, the Knicks and their fans have scanned the schedule and pretty much gagged over a potentially murderous 23-game stretch that awaits just before until well after Christmas. But before that run, there was a span of games with potential cupcakes. The key, of course, is to beat them.
On Saturday in Chicago against the woeful Bulls, they did not.
On Sunday at the Garden against the depressing Hawks, they did.
Kristaps Porzingis was back in big-load mode, but Doug McDermott off the bench was a big reason for the success.
Porzingis produced 30 points, his first 30-point game since Nov. 11, while McDermott scored 13 of his 23 points in the second half and the Knicks hung on and avoided the embarrassment of losing to the NBA’s two worst teams on consecutive nights with a 111-107 victory that moved them back to .500 before an announced crowd of 19,189.
The game did not lack for late drama. The Knicks were up nine with 2:22 to go. In fact, the Hawks were within 105-102 after an Ersan Ilyasova (20 points) layup. The Knicks turned it over and then Marco Belinelli had a wide-open 3. He even ball faked, exhaled, shot — and missed with 52 seconds left. Jarrett Jack (19 points) next buried a jumper at 29 seconds to extend the Knicks’ lead to 107-102.
And there were other bad moves — Jack fouled Kent Bazemore on the perimeter with 8.3 second left and the Knicks up four. Bazemore made two free throws and Jack went to the line the other way — but he bricked the first free throw so it was 109-106, Atlanta ball. Bazemore made one, missed and the ball went to the Knicks. Porzingis made two free throws for his 30-point game.
The Knicks (13-13) were clinging to a two-point lead after Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder (21 points) drove at 9:04 to make it 84-82. McDermott sank a pair of free throws at 8:47 and then Frank Ntilikina scored seven straight Knicks points — Atlanta countered with two — to produce a 93-84 lead with seven minutes left.
On Saturday coach Jeff Hornacek had been livid at how the Knicks started in Chicago. Sunday didn’t lead to handstands, but at least there was a victory.
“Consistency,” Hornacek said of what he requires. “We’ve done a great job this year playing with effort, playing hard all the time. But then you have a quarter or a half here and there of not having that full energy. We have to be consistent.”
The Knicks got a strong third quarter from McDermott, whose floater with two seconds left brought a 76-75 lead. McDermott scored seven in the quarter — including a 3-pointer that originally was called a 2. Porzingis and Jack combined for 11 points in that third quarter which also saw a flagrant-one foul against Kyle O’Quinn.
The Knicks led by as many as nine in the first half and it looked like Atlanta was one cupcake they would easily put away. Looks can deceive.
The Hawks stuck around and 4.1 seconds before halftime, Luke Babbitt stuck a 3. So the Hawks, who spent much of the half serving as a walking, talking, semi-breathing definition of terrible, led, 52-51, at intermission.
The Knicks were encouraged early with Porzingis, who had 15 points by halftime with much of his offense coming inside. Porzingis shot 6-of-12 early with eight shots inside the foul line.
Early in the season, Porzingis amassed a start like no Knick ever. But after averaging a franchise record-setting 30.4 points in his first 11 games, Porzingis had averaged 17.5 in his previous 10 entering Sunday, including a four-point effort against Miami when he was knocked out early in the first quarter with a sprained ankle.
So what happened? Porzingis points to one thing above all.
“A lot less space,” Porzingis said before the game.
There are other valid reasons. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s absence has caused opponents to swarm Porzingis. There was the ankle. But the swarming is the key. It simply corrals Porzingis.
“The shots are pretty much the same, but there’s a lot less space,” Porzingis said. “The defenses. There’s more attention on me now. The beginning of the season, I felt a little more space, a little more freedom. Now everybody is ready to help. So I have to make adjustments and I have to keep learning.”