CHICAGO – As much as New York’s 117-104 victory Friday night at United Center was about Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah reminding the Bulls about the guys who got away, it was about Kristaps Porzingis making sure the Knicks didn’t forget about him even as he was in their midst.
The emotions of the night focused on Rose and Noah, the face and heart of the Bulls through most (Rose) or all (Noah) of their eight (Rose) or nine (Noah) seasons in Chicago.
That storyline didn’t disappoint: Rose scored 15 points, passed for 11 assists and grabbed seven rebounds in his first return to his hometown and the site of so many on-court highs and lows. Noah had 16 points, nine rebounds and three steals, and playfully smacked Rose around as they left the game with 28.1 seconds left, their work done, their satisfaction (if not revenge) complete.
That was all about looking back, though. Porzingis’ season-high 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting was so much more important to looking forward, given the 21-year-old’s role in anything positive the Knicks hope to do. The 7-foot-3 “stretch” big man is essential to New York’s future but only with more games like Friday and a lot fewer like Wednesday.
That was Porzingis’ lost night, when he got only four shots, made none and finished with three points in 28 minutes against Houston at Madison Square Garden. It was aggravating, at home, his worst outing of the season but not necessarily atypical from where New York’s attack seemed headed.
With Rose, Noah and guard Courtney Lee added to Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks’ forever No. 1 option, Porzingis’ opportunities seemed endangered. Playing alongside Noah would require him to guard more mobile forwards, which could dictate minutes.
And then there was the overall unfamiliarity of the made-over lineup, still adjusting to each other after Rose’s lawsuit-limited October. Consider one oft-repeated stat: Of Porzingis’ first 19 field goals heading into Friday, only one had come off an assist by Rose, the new ball-dominant point guard.
He got one courtesy of Rose Friday, as well as a couple off passes from Noah and two more delivered by Anthony. Brandon Jennings found him twice and Lee dished Porzingis’ way once. In fact, if he wasn’t a priority in the game plan coming in, things sure played out that way.
“I think maybe it was in the back of their heads of my teammates to get me more involved than I was in the last game,” Porzingis said afterward. “We reacted quickly when there was a mismatch. A lot of times they switched on me with the guard. They gave it to me and I was able to attack.”
Both Porzingis, who got seven 3-point attempts and made four, and coach Jeff Hornacek cited New York’s spacing. “It was not as crowded as our last game and we made concerted effort to get out into open spaces,” Hornacek said.
Whether he ‘fessed up to impatience of his own, it was clear that Knicks fans were getting impatient on his behalf.
“I was just learning from my own mistakes,” said Porzingis, also referring to the Rockets game as a “reality check.”
“Games where I didn’t play so well and I wasn’t getting the ball enough, I was trying to get in situations where I can be more aggressive and attack from there. I know teammates are going to find me – when I’m open, they’re going to kick the ball to me.”
For Rose and Noah, the emotional trip back went about as well as they could have expected – after the early minutes, anyway. Both got loud reactions from the crowd in introductions, Noah’s largely positive. But Rose – who won Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in his first three seasons with the Bulls – heard a fair amount of boos then and moments later when he touched the ball the first few times after tipoff.
At the first timeout, though, the Bulls played a video tribute to the pair on the scoreboard and they even got re-introduced with their familiar “the man in the middle” and “From Chicago!…” set-ups. From there it was just about basketball, and both Rose and Noah flashed skills that Bulls fans knew oh so well.
“It was all fun, man. I love competing and I love when the crowd’s into it,” Rose said, sticking to script before delving a little deeper. The Knicks don’t play in Chicago again this season, so at least that bit of drama is in the past.
“It’s weird, it’s definitely weird,” Rose said. “Just seeing my family scattered throughout the stands instead of in a [suite or on the floor]. The circus, the craziness around it is kind of crazy. But for me, I just try to stay sane by coming in and saying it was the next game.
“I just wanted to win. We lost two before we came here and, of course in New York, you know how that is.”
In New York, they all know how it is. Endless debate over team president Phil Jackson’s vaunted triangle offense vs. the more familiar pick-and-roll playbook. Micro-management of minutes and touches, with big fat headlines at the first hint of trouble. Hornacek’s job status scrutinized, Anthony’s mood assessed daily.
And Porzingis’ development safeguarded not for yesterday or today, but for tomorrow.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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