Kristaps Porzingis was on a mission Sunday night. He wasn’t going to let the Knicks lose.
Showing incredible growth in his third NBA season, he took the Knicks — who trailed by 19 points late in the third quarter — put them on his back and carried them to an inspired victory.
Porzingis’ career-high 40 points led the Knicks to a 108-101 win over the Pacers at Madison Square Garden. It was his seventh game of at least 30 points in the Knicks’ nine games and the second time he established a career high in the last four games.
Porzingis shot 15-for-24 and had eight rebounds and six blocked shots. He scored 26 points in the second half, including 24 in the last 13:26, when he shot 8-for-10. “We needed a spark offensively,” he said. “I wanted to be aggressive.”
Porzingis is averaging 30.2 points per game overall — second in the NBA behind Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 31.0 — and 33.5 in the last four games.
Porzingis has been a revelation in the way he has taken over for Carmelo Anthony and taken over games. Former Knicks president Phil Jackson said after last season that he didn’t think the 22-year-old forward was ready to become the focal point of a team, and Porzingis said that provided motivation to prove him wrong.
“Challenge is never too big for me,” he said. “I always accept the challenge, and that’s why I knew coming into this season if Melo was not going to be here, then I’m going to have to be that guy, and that’s why I was just 24 hours in the gym. I was preparing for this, preparing myself physically, and I’m just happy that I’m capable of playing at this level right now.”
The Knicks won for the fifth time in the last six games to move to 5-4.
Given crunch-time minutes for the first time, 19-year-old rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina played the entire fourth quarter and had four assists, two steals and two big three-pointers. The second one, on Porzingis’ only assist of the night, put the Knicks up for good at 102-99.
Ntilikina had 10 points, seven assists and three steals overall. “I just knew what I had to do, run the team,” he said. “I had two open shots. I took them. It helped me a lot.”
The Knicks, who were a step slow defensively for most of the first three quarters, allowed only 17 points in the last 13:26. After falling behind 90-74 with 10:02 left, they outscored Indiana 34-11 the rest of the way.
“Everything clicked,” Porzingis said. “Everything clicked at the end for us. But it all started from us locking in defensively.”
Thaddeus Young led the Pacers (5-5) with 18 points. Victor Oladipo had 17 and Domantas Sabonis 16.
The Pacers appeared to be in control late in the third, but after Jeff Hornacek re-inserted Porzingis with 1:43 left in the quarter, he changed the game.
With the Knicks down 84-65, Porzingis scored 15 consecutive Knicks points between the third and fourth quarters and 17 of 19 to lead his team back.
Porzingis’ three-point play gave the Knicks a 97-96 lead with 3:26 left, their first since the first quarter. After Darren Collison hit a three-pointer to give the Pacers a two-point lead, Porzingis tied it with a jumper.
After a stop, Porzingis fed Ntilikina for a three-pointer that gave the Knicks a 102-99 edge with 1:33 remaining. Ntilikina then forced a turnover that led to a layup by Tim Hardaway Jr. that put the Knicks up five.
Oladipo’s driving layup with 32.4 seconds left made it 104-101. Lance Thomas hit two free throws with 11.9 seconds left to ice the game, but Porzingis was the difference.
“He’s playing with confidence,” Hornacek said. “He’s willing to take those shots and make the plays. That’s the step that he’s taken in becoming the main focus. But it’s the smart play of making the extra pass when two guys come at you. That’s a huge step, because he’s going to see more of that as time goes on. If he does that, just like that play, we can win games.”