Three things we learned Monday: Knicks look much better with Porzingis at center

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Associated Press
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Honestly, Monday night was not a thrilling, well-executed, “this is how the game should be played” night of basketball. It was more of a “this is why there should only be 60 games in a season” night of basketball. Still, there are things we learned.

1) Knicks look much better when they move Kristaps Porzingis to center, Carmelo Anthony to four. Last summer, Joakim Noah was one of Phil Jackson’s big off-season moves, signing the former Defensive Player of the Year to a four-year, $72 million deal. Noah’s passing and high IQ seemed like a great fit for the triangle offense Jackson insists New York run.

In the second half coach Jeff Hornacek benched Noah — and the Knicks looked dramatically improved.

The Knicks slid Kristaps Porzingis over to center, pushed Carmelo Anthony to the power forward slot (where he played better last season), and added Justin Holiday to the starting lineup. The results were almost instantaneous: Andrew Bogut had to chase Porzingis out to the perimeter, which he doesn’t do well, and it opened up driving lanes for Derrick Rose and allowed Carmelo Anthony to post up smaller players without Bogut stopping him. In the second half Knicks offense improved (they scored at a 90.7 points per 100 possessions pace in the first half, 115.9 in the second), their defense improved (they held Dallas to 35 percent shooting including 4-of-18 from three in the second half), they played much faster (an 81 possession for the game pace in the first half, 97 in the second), Anthony looked comfortable and had 17 points in the third quarter (he shot 1-of-6 in the first half), Holiday had 12 points in the second half, and the Knicks went on a 19-2 third-quarter run that blew the game open and led them to an easy 93-77 win.

The Knicks did most of their second-half damage from the midrange and going 5-of-9 on corner threes in the second half — it wasn’t perfect, but it certainly was better. Also, the Knicks did this against a struggling Dallas team without Dirk Nowitzki or Deron Williams. So we should be careful making big leaps after one half of good play.

Still, this is the lineup most people without the initials PJ wanted to see and it thrived, which begs the questions: Can Hornacek bench the guy Jackson just spent so much money on? Was the Noah signing for four years a mistake?

New York’s next game is Wednesday hosting Andre Drummond and the Pistons — no, Hornacek will not start “small” (Porzingis is 7’3”, he’s not small, it’s more a style thing) against a traditional, dominant center. Hornacek said the starting lineup likely would not change, that the lineup that worked so well will be used more situationally. Okay. But there are a lot of situations where that would be the better lineup. A lot. And the Knicks need to use it.

2) Russell Westbrook may not be able to save Thunder. Once again on Monday, Russell Willson was a force of nature — 33 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists. That included a vicious dunk.

But the rest of the Thunder were bad. Oklahoma City players not named Westbrook shot 32.8 percent, the team’s defense has been atrocious the past 10 days, and there are serious depth issues. The result on Monday was the Thunder’s fourth straight loss (dropping them to 6-5 on the season).

This team has issues. Steven Adams is not yet a guy who can live up to a $100 million contract (he can grow into it) and they don’t have a floor spacing big who can defend well enough to deserve to start next to him. There are spacing issues and fit questions all over this roster. Which most nights is leaving Russell Westbrook against the world, and that’s a recipe for a .500 team. An entertaining one, but not a real threat. Westbrook signed on for more of this, he’s in, but Sam Presti has some work to do to get a better fitting roster around him.

3) Boston’s defense, late-game execution cost them again, this time in loss to Pelicans. We’ve gone over this before in three things, so we’re not going to beat the dead horse tonight, but Boston went up against one of the worst offenses in the NBA Monday night and allowed 102 points per 100 possessions, and that again cost them the win.

Well, that and some ugly late-game execution. Down one with :24 seconds left the Celtics out of time out play was Avery Bradley pounding the ball for five seconds then trying to hit a 27-footer over Anthony Davis (which he tipped). Fortunately for Boston, the ball went out off the Pelicans so the Celtics called another timeout with :14 seconds left to set up another inbounds play under the basket. The result: A Tim Frazier jumping in front of a Marcus Smart pass for an easy steal. And yet, thanks to a missed free throw, it was a two-point game that Isaiah Thomas layup tied it at 105-105. Just :07 left, no Pelicans’ timeouts, so Frazier pushes the ball up court, stops at the arc, pump-fakes — and Kelly Olynyk leaps into him for the obvious foul. Free throws and ball game Pelicans.

That’s a tough loss for Boston, which needs to get Al Horford and Jae Crowder back because these are the kinds of bad losses that sting.