Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
Barclays Center was teeming with replica Knicks jerseys Wednesday night, which was no surprise given the state of the home team and the positive recent vibe around the visitors.
It also came as no surprise that among those in Knicks jerseys, there were an extraordinary number sporting the No. 6 of a rookie named Kristaps Porzingis, who was marking the end of the first half of his first NBA regular season.
Then the game started and served as a cold slap of reality to the face of all Knicks fans.
That was because old No. 7, Carmelo Anthony, was on the bench nursing a sprained ankle, which was the worst possible thing for the Knicks and the best possible way for everyone to be reminded of how fragile these Knicks are.
Porzingis is a marvel, a prodigy on the court and a natural off it, which bodes well for the future. But the Knicks’ present — not to mention the development of the young Latvian — is bound tightly to Anthony’s physical and emotional well-being.
The Knicks are 0-3 without the best player in town after a 110-104 loss to a Nets team that had dropped 10 straight home games, along with their general manager and head coach.
He had 12 points and 10 rebounds in 37 minutes, shooting 5-for-17 from the floor, as the Nets made it clear from the start they would try to bully him with his big brother sitting courtside in street clothes.
“He always makes the game easier for us; he always draws a lot of attention and makes the game easier for me,” said Porzingis, bluntly honest as usual. “This time I could tell from the beginning they were really paying a lot of attention to me, and Thaddeus Young was getting in my jersey, playing really tight defense on me.
“Without him, it’s obviously different. So on nights like this when we don’t have him, I can’t have a bad shooting night like this. I’ve got to step up and I have to score the ball more.”
Hey, it’s all part of the learning process, which is what this season is about for Porzingis, so if a loss to the hapless Nets is part of the price to be paid, so be it.
“I think Carmelo helps everybody, so not having him out there makes a difference for every guy on our team,” coach Derek Fisher said. “I think Kris in his first year is learning every night about different situations and how to fight through different things and maybe not shooting the ball well, but how do you still impact the game and help the team win?
“Regardless of who’s playing, those are things he’s learning every night.”
The clock is ticking. Anthony is 11 years older than Porzingis, so for their partnership to produce anything beyond the Knicks’ current fringe-playoff-team status, the learning curve must be steep. An elite point guard would be nice, too.
But for now, the Knicks’ best hope is for Melo’s right ankle to heal quickly and get this intriguing show back on track.
Porzingis certainly seems like a willing student. After Wednesday night’s loss, he engaged reporters in dissecting a dunk he had missed spectacularly, analyzing how he might handle things differently moving forward.
“Just try to jump higher, maybe not dunk it as hard as I want to, not think about who’s coming at you,” he said. “Just go out there and dunk it.”
Jump higher? The dude is 7-3.
Whatever. The point is that he is soaking it all in. That includes the experience of the Nets roughing him up in Melo’s absence.
“Guys are going to try to do that now,” he said. “Just be ready for it and be ready to step up and be aggressive.”