I had a lot of fun watching the Knicks in Las Vegas tonight. I had fun because the squad really seemed to enjoy each other's company -- defending on a string, moving the ball, and leaping off the bench after particularly snappy plays. I had fun, too, because Thomas & Mack Center was packed with rowdy, riveted Lakers fans who met the game's Knicks-ward trends with all the exasperation of a home playoff crowd.
I loved watching Kristaps Porzingis move his feet. I loved watching the Knick guards hound ballhandlers and accelerate off turnovers. I loved watching Maurice Ndour hustle and Louis Labeyrie draw the continued ire of all the L.A. fans for reasons I can't fully explain. I loved watching Alex Kirk -- who looks like if your friend Dan grew up eating nothing but creatine and butter sandwiches -- kindasorta dominate for significant stretches of each half.
None of it really matters, but it was fun. And there were things. Here are said things:
- This was my first in-person exposure to Kristaps Porzingis, and it was positive exposure. As in the first game, I was most impressed by Krispy's footwork on defense. He worked in harmony with his guards (who played mostly terrific D on the ball) to hedge, ICE, and trap, and he offered help defense at the right times from the right angles. His biggest issue -- which the Lakers didn't work much to expose until Julius Randle got pissed off at the very end of the game -- is his weak lower body, which even a guard can displace with a solid shoulder. All that needs is work, though. He's usually in position, and he understands "verticality." He just needs to do enough squats and eat enough meats to keep his ass above his feet when there's contact. Except for impulses to bite on the odd fake, Kristaps's defensive sensibilities have looked beyond what I expected, even at this level.
The timing and spacing are there on offense, too. Early on, Kristaps snacked on a couple easy buckets by just racing down floor and establishing deep enough position that his kinda shaky hands didn't have room to waver. His screens were remarkably solid. His instincts for maintaining a buffer between himself and his teammates surpassed that of the other big guys.
My main complaints in this realm came when Porzingis had great position but either couldn't keep or couldn't exploit it. This is partly the fault of the guards, but numerous post mismatches (and everything's a mismatch when you're 7'8") went wasted because Kristaps made himself too narrow a target or because of wild entry lobs. He passed up a few clean looks (and every look is clean when you're 8'5") to pass or put the ball on the floor. These are fine things, especially because Porzingis made even those moves of deference promptly and decisively, but in this setting I'd love to see him cook a bit more. That's a quibble, though. With all those screens and all that passing, he's way more in the flow of things than I expected. The kid looks sharp. He played about 4-5 minutes each quarter, and each of those stints was a good time.
- Oh, and rebounding. His hands were often at his sides, and his body stayed unfurled in such a way that even the slightest contact bent him in half.
- ^^^Positioning that bad and a lower body that weak are kind of a great recipe for drawing fouls? So...?
- Just as scoutfolk foresaw, there's been a stark contrast between Jerian Grant's performance in halfcourt sets and in transition. Especially when the Knicks packed the paint or chose Triangle-y flavors, Grant struggled to fill his spots and fed the ball to openings a beat or two late. In transition, he looked masterful, particularly on back-to-back plays in the second half in which he threaded an impossible low bounce pass to hockey-assist a Cleanthony Early lob, and when he threw a similar pass directly to Early for a strong dunk in traffic.
Grant's defense on the ball looked solid, and he got a bunch of assists off steals. Finished one really impressive righty floater with a hard foul, too.
- Langston Galloway did his thing where he takes a lot of good shots and misses damn near all of them, but his defense was very good and you could detect his level of experience in the way he operated within any offensive set.
- Speaking of offensive sets, the Knicks very rarely ran the elementary Triangle actions they forced throughout last year's Summer League. Most of the time, they pushed and looked for quick buckets, then they played four-out possessions initiated by screens, THEN they went to Triangle stuff. And even those rare sideline Triangles were slightly modified, and were built off a baseline screen or an unexpected corner fill. They flowed in and out of those looks quite nicely, with very little of the hyper-mechanical crap that gunked up last summer's spectacle.
- Maurice Ndour's fun! He's got a familiar hustle-guy vibe, but he's pretty clever, too. It's not all GRIT.
- I kept grabbing Jason by the shoulder and shaking him when Alex Kirk made nice plays ... and Alex Kirk just kept making nice plays. Like, I may have given Jason whiplash. Dude passed, dude made his mid-range shots, dude stayed in the way on defense. I got way more out of the Alex Kirk experience than I anticipated. He is arguably the greatest player of all time.
- I guess Louis Labeyrie kinda shoved Jabari Brown at some point? Was that it? Was that why the Lakers fans here booed him every time he touched the ball? I can't say for sure, but I loved it.
- Cleanthony Early just fit in. He didn't get too ambitious with the ball. He attacked if the set-up passes afforded him a step, and he dove to the rim and chased tip-ins and stuff. Defense was fine.
- The first quarter score was 19-5. The Knicks gave up *nothing* at the basket except for one leak-out dunk in transition.
- JIMMY BARON IS A COACH'S SON. HE DIRECTS TRAFFIC WITH POINTING. HE POINTS AT EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE. HE'S POINTING AT YOU RIGHT NOW. HE DOVE INTO THE SCORER'S TABLE TUMMY-FIRST AND PROBABLY SHATTERED HIS ENTIRE RIBCAGE TO SET UP A THANASIS DUNK. HIS BONES ARE MADE OF GRIT AND HIS FLESH IS MADE OF HUSTLE.
- The Lakers weirdly doubled Kristaps a lot in the post, even off the ball. He and the Knicks did a good job recognizing that bizarre decision and getting the ball out of there.
Fun game. Good job, Knicks. Alex Kirk forever. Kristaps forever. Louis Labeyrie til I die. Next game tomorrow at 5:30.