After an otherworldly start to this season, Kristaps Porzingis has looked surprisingly human over his past three games. And if the Unicorn is truly coming back to Earth, the good feelings and excitement emanating from the Garden could evaporate rather quickly.
Porzingis appeared lethargic and out of sync during one of his worst performances of the season Saturday night in a 107-84 loss to the Raptors in Toronto. The 7-3 Latvian hit just three of his 13 shot attempts and finished with 13 points in 35 minutes. He committed three turnovers, grabbed a season-low four rebounds and struggled against the Raptors’ physical defense, primarily from Pascal Siakam.
Through the first 12 games of the season, as the Knicks turned heads with an auspicious 7-5 start, Porzingis was an offensive juggernaut and a virtually unstoppable force, using his length and increased lower-body strength to shoot over defenders in the post. He averaged 30.4 points in 11 games, shooting over 50% from the field and over 40% from downtown.
Over the last three games, though, Porzingis hasn’t looked like the same player. He’s dealing with chronic swelling in his shooting elbow — officially diagnosed as elbow bursitis — and while Porzingis has said the ailment isn’t affecting his shot, the drop in production is impossible to ignore. The Knicks are 1-2 in their last three contests, and Porzingis is averaging just 18.3 points. Perhaps more jarring: He’s shooting just 34% from the field.
It’s a far cry from the form he showed earlier this season, when he topped 37 points three times in four games from Dec. 30 to Nov. 5.
The shots aren’t falling for Kristaps Porzingis like they were early in the season.
(Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports)
“He’s still a young player. We can’t expect he’s going to do that every single night,” Jeff Hornacek said after Friday’s loss. “And that’s when the other guys got to pick it up, with the scoring and the defense. There’s going to be nights like that, and we got to figure out ways that we can still win games if he’s not able to score.’’
It shouldn’t come as a shock that the Knicks live and die by Porzingis. But the discrepancies are still worth noting. He’s averaging 32.6 points in victories and just 21.3 points in losses. He’s shooting 54.5% from the field in wins and 37.8% in losses.
The recent downturn should be more concerning for the Knicks, largely because of Porzingis’ elbow. Porzingis’ first two seasons followed a similar trend. He burst out of the gates with excellent, awe-inspiring play before battling injuries and slowing down in the second half of the season. As a rookie, Porzingis missed the final seven games because of a right shoulder strain. Last year, he fought through Achilles pain for a good portion of the season.
Now there’s the elbow, which Porzingis said is something he will be forced to deal with all year. And he may need to get it surgically drained in the offseason.
The Knicks need Tim Hardaway Jr. to step up his game on the offensive end.
On Saturday night, Porzingis disagreed with the notion that his recent struggles are related to more physical defense from the opposition, which only adds to speculation that the elbow is impacting his play. Porzingis has experimented with wearing a sleeve on the elbow during games, but didn’t don one against the Raptors.
“From the first game, it’s been like that,” Porzingis said of the defense. “It’s just a matter of me not forcing things and getting easier stuff early on and not try to go one on one and then create something for myself. I got to get myself going, getting an easy bucket, and then things will open up. …The physicality is going to be there, no matter what. I just got to be able to take that contact and keep going and score over guys.”
The truth is Porzingis was never going to sustain that MVP-caliber offensive play for 82 games. Maybe sometime in the future he will. But as Hornacek said, Porzingis is still young and developing.
Which means if the Knicks are going to build off their unexpected start, they’ll need a clear-cut No. 2 scoring option to emerge. Tim Hardaway is living up to his monster contract thus far, but he’s been too inconsistent as a scorer and is now coping with a foot injury.
The weight of the Garden has been on Porzingis’ shoulders, and it’s not an easy burden to carry. Ask Carmelo Anthony.