With 2:18 left in the game Saturday night at the Garden, Kristaps Porzingis was walking toward the Knicks’ bench during a timeout when he was bumped by Tyson Chandler.
It seemed innocent, but Porzingis took offense to the nudge, stopping to glare and go chest-to-chest with Chandler before players and officials stepped between them.
It didn’t go beyond that, but it still was a good sign for the Knicks, who need every ounce of toughness they can muster during this difficult stretch of their season.
“That was nothing,” Chandler, a former Knick, said afterward. “I was walking to the bench and our paths crossed. I think he’s a great young player with a bright future.”
The Knicks went on to suffer another demoralizing loss, a 107-105 kick to the gut from the Suns, when Carmelo Anthony’s 3-point try at the buzzer rimmed in and out. It was their 13th loss in their past 16 games and dropped their record to 19-26.
“It is obviously tough,” Porzingis said. “We all want to win and we all want to be successful. I think we are growing as a team and doing the right things. We aren’t there yet. We aren’t that good.”
Let’s face it. Amid all the losing, the late-game failures and the Melodrama, the most important news surrounding the Knicks these days is the health of Porzingis’ Achilles tendon.
There has been and will continue to be plenty of discussion about whether Anthony should be traded or remain a Knick. But there is little question Porzingis is the foundation of the Knicks’ future.
That is why missing four games with tendinitis in his Achilles was the last thing the Knicks needed. It is the kind of injury that can linger and lead to other injuries when an athlete tries to play through the pain.
Judging from his performance Saturday night, Porzingis is ornery and on the mend, which is easily the best news the Knicks can have at this juncture of a thus far disappointing season.
Porzingis scored 14 points, including 10 in the third quarter, when the Knicks rallied from a 61-55 halftime deficit to force a 90-90 deadlock heading into the final 12 minutes.
The Knicks eventually lost against a team that entered with just 13 wins.
“We aren’t able to finish those games yet,” Porzingis said. “I think we’re competing hard. This is a challenge. We are trying to stay in it and hopefully these close games will come our way soon.”
Give Porzingis credit for trying. After looking tentative in the opening quarter, he showed more mobility in the second, running the floor, chasing rebounds and looking to block shots. At one point in the fourth quarter, he took the ball from the top of the key and tried to drive to the basket. He was stripped of the ball, but the effort was credible.
A minute later, Porzingis came streaking across the court and leaped high in the air to block a shot by Brandon Knight, only to be called for goaltending. He was the perfect complement to Anthony (31 points) and Derrick Rose (26), who did most of the heavy lifting.
Porzingis’ effort followed his 15-point performance against the Wizards on Thursday night, when he came off the bench and was 6-of-11 from the field with just two rebounds. Against the Suns, he managed just one rebound while starting, a statistic that must improve, but he made 7 of 13 shots.
What the Knicks need to be cautious about is not having him do too much too soon. With their record the way it is, it would be easy to overextend Porzingis. He played 33 minutes Saturday after playing 29 minutes against the Wizards.
It’s clear the losing is starting to wear on the Knicks. But the one thing they can’t lose is Porzingis.
By George Willis