Kristaps Porzingis shines defensively in Summer League debut for Knicks

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LAS VEGAS — When the Knicks selected Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, the fans in attendance were extremely vocal in voicing their displeasure.

Their trepidation was somewhat understandable, if only because the casual fan isn’t usually well-versed in the talents of international prospects, and with the disastrous 2013 trade for Andrea Bargnani fresh in their minds, the fans in New York felt justified in letting the boos rain down.

But things were different on Saturday in Las Vegas, where Porzingis donned a Knicks jersey for the very first time. The fans at the Thomas and Mack Center were generous with their praise, cheering Porzingis at every turn during a performance that saw him finish with 12 points, three rebounds and two blocked shots in a little over of 18 minutes of action.

“Finally they saw me play out there, so hopefully now some of those booing fans are now cheering for me out there,” Porzingis said.

The play of Porzingis in his debut confirmed any preconceived notions fans may have had, on either the positive or negative side of the spectrum. For those that believed his frame was too slight, they saw him get pushed around. For those that liked his ability to absorb contact and get to the free throw line, they saw him get there seven times.

But it was his effort on the defense end of the floor which impressed Knicks head coach Derek Fisher the most.

“I think defensively he has the potential to be really special,” Fisher said. “There were some things that he recognized and made adjustments on and supported his teammates in switching out on smaller players, using his length to protect the basket. I thought on the defensive end he impacted the game in a major way.”

Porzingis showed almost immediately that any potential label of him being soft would simply be a flat-out lie. He looked to create contact, both on perimeter screens and on post-up opportunities inside, often times against bigger and bulkier guys.

“He’s aggressive,” Fisher said. “He doesn’t look overpowering, but he plays a strong game. He’s not afraid to go in there and mix it up.”

“I tried to play aggressive,” Porzingis said. “I knew the guys were going to be physical. I tried to play the same way. I got to the free throw line, missed one free throw — gotta make them all, but I think I was pretty aggressive.

“As you can see out there, I’m fighting with the guys although they’re 15 pounds heavier than me, even more. I try to go out there and play as hard as I can, and I don’t have a problem with contact.”

The fans who may have wanted to see more than 18 minutes from Porzingis will get that eventually. He had been dealing with a hip issue, and even though he says it’s completely fine now, the team is obviously going to proceed with caution.

“Coach told me I wasn’t going to play a lot,” Porzingis said. “He told me 18 minutes. I knew I wasn’t going to play a whole lot, just because they wouldn’t want me to go 30 minutes or whatever. It’s step by step, and I just wanted to be me when I go out there, play hard, and play 100 percent.”

When he was out there, he played with a high level of activity, and showed a great awareness for his position on the floor that allowed him to consistently be in the right place to challenge his opponents’ shots.

“I still have trouble calling the defense on the screens and stuff,” Porzingis said. “I try to remember the calls. I’m still having trouble with that. But I try to be as aggressive as I can and help my teammates.”

Porzingis struggled to gain post position at times, due to a 7’1″ frame that appears to be extremely slight on the surface. It’s something he already plans on improving, but he’s taking a wait-and-see approach as far as exactly how much.

“I’ve got to get stronger,” Porzingis said. “I’ve just got to see. Ten pounds, 15 pounds, maybe 0, maybe 30. I’ve just got to see how I feel at 240, 250. Just little by little, putting on the weight, seeing if I have the same quickness, same athleticism, seeing if I can move the same. I’ve just got to see how I feel.”

The fans are already feeling a more positive vibe where Porzingis is concerned, as evidenced by the many cheers that echoed throughout the arena anytime his aggressive level of activity achieved a positive result.

“That’s the opposite of what I heard on draft night,” Porzingis said. “So it was nice to hear some cheers out there.”

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his slow start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got what they came to see during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first half looking like a rookie who had not played much ane was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.