NEW YORK — All eyes will be squarely on Kristaps Porzingis Thursday night when the Dallas Mavericks face the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in a nationally televised game on TNT (7 p.m. tip).
It will be Porzingis’ first game in New York since the Knicks traded him to the Mavs on Jan. 31. Needless to say, this will not be an ordinary game, Porzingis said, judging by the reactions he’s seen and read on social media.
“I don’t know what to expect,” Porzingis said following Wednesday’s practice. “Social media says it’s mostly negative, but we’ll see. It’s hard not to see (the social media comments), but it is what it is.
“Everybody can say their opinion on social media, and you don’t have to read all of it if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to pay attention to it. Sometimes I see it, sometimes I don’t look at it. I understand where they’re coming from.”
Emotions will be running high, Porzingis admits, because the Knicks made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and he gave the franchise and their diehard fans supreme hope to the point where he was named to the 2018 Eastern Conference All-Star team. But Porzingis’ – and the Knicks’ – world came crashing back down to earth on Feb. 6, 2018 when he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament during a game against Milwaukee.
Surgery soon followed, and less than a year later while Porzingis was still rehabbing his injury, the Knicks surprisingly traded the 7-3 forward to the Mavs in a blockbuster deal that sent shock waves across the NBA.
In chronicling his three-plus years with the Knicks, Porzingis said: “A lot of excitement, a lot of memories and a lot of good memories mostly. It’s going to be weird (entering Madison Square Garden), at the same time.
“It’s my first time being in the visitor’s locker room, and it’s going to be different, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s a weird thing. It’s a good feeling to be back here.”
Porzingis put on an impressive performance when the Knicks played the Mavs at American Airlines Center last Friday. He finished with 28 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots before fouling out in a game the Mavs lost, 106-102.
But that was in Dallas. Thursday’s game is in New York, and no one needs to remind Porzingis how high the volume and the temperature will be turned up in this much-anticipated contest.
Porzingis said: “It’s going to be a lot of emotions, that’s for sure.”
Although the Knicks never won more than 32 games during Porzingis’ tenure in New York, he was their brightest star, their cornerstone piece who was going to help get them turned in the right direction. Porzingis was the toast of the town, could get in any over-crowded restaurant that he wanted to, and was well-loved around the Big Apple.
“When you’re a Knick and you’re doing – we weren’t doing that well — but when you’re decent. . .there’s a lot of love and you get treated really well everywhere,” Porzingis said. “Everywhere you go, everything you do.
“This is a basketball city and it (felt bad) that we never really got to do something big here.”
Coach Rick Carlisle offered Porzingis some sage advice as one of the biggest days of his career approached.
“What I said to him before the first New York game was lose yourself in the team, don’t get distracted by who we’re playing and just do the things that you do so well within the system that we run,” Carlisle said. “He did that in the first game and he had a very good all-around game – we just didn’t win.
“My advice this time around is really the same. We’ve got to make this about our team being in New York and competing and trying to win a game, not about these other distractions which is the reason all you guys are here.”
Point guard Luka Doncic acknowledged that it’s imperative that everyone in the Mavs’ organization make Porzingis feel comfortable in his own skin in a game that will invariably attract a lot of media attention for obvious reasons. A few dozen of the New York media attended the Mavs’ practice on Wednesday.
“I think everybody is going to help him,” Doncic said. “We’re going to stick together.
“I’ve got to help him out, the players are going to help him out, the coaches. Everybody’s got his back.”
As he’s moved on to the next chapter in his basketball career, Porzingis knows the Knicks are 2-9 this season, and the fans are restless. He had to deal with that, too, when he was a member of the Knicks.
“When I was there the expectations were always high for us,” Porzingis said. “It’s a city hungry for success in basketball, and for them, for the fans and the city to be going through this year after year, it’s got to be tough.
“It’s always a lot of pressure, and when things are not going right, immediately there needs to be changes and this year is no different for them again, so it’s tough. But it is what it is.”
For himself, Porzingis is not only anxious about putting his first game in New York against the Knicks in his rearview mirror. He also is trying to bounce back from his worst game of the season – Monday’s four-point, five-rebound, five-foul outing in Boston when he was just 1-of-11 from the field.
“I have no doubt that my team has my back, and I’m going to soon be at the level that I need to be at,” Porzingis said. “Some games I’ve already shown what I’m capable of.
“But I want to get back to that consistency, and it’s going to come. It’s going to come, I have no doubt in my mind. I’ve just got to stay positive.”
After the game against Boston, Carlisle said Porzingis just had to flush it out of his system and move on to the next game. Porzingis appreciates that vote of confidence, but added that: “After bad games like that (Carlisle) always talks to me and (asks) what we can do better, and so on.
“We’re honestly working toward that, but I also told him, ‘I’ve got to be better, I’ve got to play better.’ I’ve had some good games and not so good. I’m looking forward to bouncing back and just getting back on the right track.”
And on the right track in an environment Porzingis is very familiar with, and that’s spiced with more than its share of memorable moments.
As far as what reaction he believes Porzingis will receive on Thursday, owner Mark Cuban said: “I think it’ll be mixed. He’s going to get his boos, but I think that’ll just motivate him.”