Kristaps Porzingis, labeled a “unicorn” by Kevin Durant for his rare combination of size and skill, has come into his own early in his third season as the Knicks (6-4) have won six of seven after an 0-3 start and have fans dreaming of the team’s first playoff appearance since 2013.
The 7’3″ Porzingis scored seven of his 28 points late in the fourth quarter Tuesday night when New York rallied from an 11-point deficit in the final 12 minutes to defeat the Charlotte Hornets 118-113. It was the second straight game Porzingis fueled a fourth-quarter charge as the Knicks overcame a 16-point deficit in the last 10:03 to beat Indiana on Sunday night.
Orlando (6-4) are still atop the Southeast but trying to avoid a winless three-game home stand after losing 104-88 to Boston on Monday night. Jonathan Simmons, getting his first start of the season, scored 14 points, but the Magic struggled from the perimeter for the second straight game and shot a season-worst 6 for 29 from 3-point range (20.7 percent) and overall (36.3).
Simmons, though, likely will return to his super-sub role since starting point guard Elfrid Payton is expected to be in the lineup after missing eight games with a hamstring injury. The Magic had been thin at point guard with hamstring injuries to both Payton and backup D. J. Augustin and were using Shelvin Mack before elevating Simmons for a game.
Three keys to the game
Payton's potential - While Payton has been practicing with the team since Saturday, no one really knows what the Magic point guard can deliver after an eight-game layoff. His job is more to facilitate than shoot 3-pointers (Payton is a career 29.1 percent shooter from beyond the arc), so he will not be the direct answer to Orlando's perimeter woes, but if he makes the ball move to open shooters, that will help immensely.
Defensive 3-point woes for the Knicks - Lost in the euphoria of Tuesday night's victory was New York's continued struggles on the perimeter defensively. Charlotte hit 15 3-pointers, and while they finished at 40.7 percent from beyond the arc, the Hornets were hovering around 50 percent from deep most of the game. The Knicks entered Tuesday ranked 23rd in 3-pointers allowed (113) and 19th in defensive 3-point percentage (36.6), and with a Magic team eager to break out of their own 3-point shooting slump, it's a recipe for those problems to continue.
Vucevic on the perimeter - Nikola Vucevic has quietly become a legitimate 3-point threat, and while he's cooled off some, he's still connecting at a 40.5 percent clip from deep. He'll work a high pick-and-roll with Payton and make himself available above the top of the key for a majority of his 3-point attempts, and if Enes Kanter or Kyle O'Quinn stay under the screen, Vucevic could have a big game.
Matchup to watch
Kristaps Porzingis vs Aaron Gordon - It is official: Porzingis is now a nightmare matchup. New York have a pair of serviceable big men in Kanter and O'Quinn to occupy traditional centers, and Porzingis can use his length to back down smaller forwards in the low post, drive into the lane while protecting his dribble, or just shoot over them. Gordon may neutralize the latter two because of his quickness and leaping ability, but if the Knicks space their offense properly to prevent Vucevic from rotating to double-team Porzingis in the paint, that will be where he does the most damage in this game.
New York Knicks projected starting lineup
PG Jarrett Jack | SG - Courtney Lee | C - Enes Kanter | SF - Tim Hardaway Jr. | PF - Kristaps Porzingis
Orlando Magic projected starting lineup
PG - Elfrid Payton | SG - Terrence Ross | C - Nikola Vucevic | SF - Evan Fournier | PF - Aaron Gordon
Porzingis is simply a must-play since he's scored at least 28 points in all but two of his ten games. He's averaged 35.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in his last three contests while shooting 62.3 percent from the field and hitting 7 of 14 from 3-point range. Porzingis has played the Magic just twice, totaling 34 points and 16 rebounds.
Tim Hardaway Jr. has become a reliable running mate offensively, averaging 21.0 points and 3.7 assists in his last six games while shooting 36.4 percent (20 of 55) from beyond the arc. He played well against Orlando in 2016/17, averaging 16.0 points on 55.9 percent shooting in three games.
Evan Fournier was held to a season-low six points against Boston but should be primed for a bounce-back game after running rampant against the Knicks last season, averaging 22.7 points in three games while shooting 53.1 percent.
Payton was also a handful for New York, recording a triple-double in the most recent meeting and averaging 10.3 points, 8.0 assists and 6.5 rebounds in four contests in 2016/17.
Vucevic has been a reliable performer against New York with 12 double-doubles in the last 15 games while totaling 15.4 points and 11.4 rebounds per game in 17 lifetime matchups.
The Knicks have become everyone's favorites as they enter this game as five-point underdogs. They are 6-1 against the spread over their last seven games and 5-1 in their last six versus Southeast Division opponents. New York also have favorable trends against Orlando, going 4-1 against the spread in the last five meetings between the teams and 8-2-1 in their last 11 road games against the Magic. The over/under of 213.5 appears low since the Knicks have gone over that total in four of their last five games, but the Magic haven't surpassed 200 in their last three contests.
After rousing rallies to win a pair of home games, the Knicks are going to find out just how much momentum they have as they go on the road. Yes, New York did roll past a dysfunctional Cleveland team on the road during their recent surge, but the Magic are a perimeter-based team similar to Houston, and the Rockets gave the Knicks fits in cruising to an easy victory in New York.
Payton will be a factor for this game, but Simmons may be more impactful as he's expected to slot back into his customary scorer's role off the bench. The Magic will have to rotate bodes on Porzingis, and Vucevic must play Kanter and O'Quinn to at least a stalemate offensively.
This is a measuring-stick game for the Knicks, but exerting that much energy on fourth-quarter comebacks the last two games and playing the back end of consecutive nights could prove too much to overcome as the Magic win 109-99.
This game will be televised locally on Fox Sports Southeast and MSG Network. Tip-off time is 7 pm ET.
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