Courtney Lee was leading the break and saw Kristaps Porzingis raising his arm as he darted to the basket. Lee threw a lob that few people could have gotten. But Porzingis climbed the ladder, caught the ball with his right hand and threw it down all in one motion.
“I feel like I threw it a little too high,” Lee said, “but I saw who I was throwing it to and then, half-man, half-amazing, Go-Go Gadget went and got it. He went and got it.”
Porzingis is soaring this season in his new role as the Knicks’ go-to guy. It’s still very early, but Porzingis, 22, is answering whether he’s ready to carry a team with a resounding yes.
He scored a career-high 38 points in the Knicks’ win over Denver Monday, carrying this rebuilding team to an unexpected third straight victory. Porzingis averaged 33.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in those three wins.
The third-year power forward is the first Knick to score 30 or more in five of the first six games to start the season and just the fourth player at 22 and younger to do that in NBA history.
“He is really, really young but Derrick Rose got his MVP when he was [22)],” center Enes Kanter said. “But I’m definitely saying he should be in MVP talk. He’s going to finish this season very well.”
The Knicks, who go for a fourth straight win Wednesday against the Rockets at the Garden, traded Carmelo Anthony to the Thunder in September and handed the keys to the franchise to Porzingis. The 7-3 Latvian has made the transition from second or third option to focal point very smoothly.
Porzingis is leading the league in usage rate at 35.1 percent. It measures the percentage of a team’s plays that ends with the ball in the player’s hands — with either a shot attempt, free throw or turnover.
Porzingis’ usage rate never reached 25 percent playing with Anthony. Last year, Anthony led the Knicks at 29.1 percent. NBA MVP Russell Westbrook led the league last year at 41.7 percent.
After Porzingis’ 38-point gem, he said he was “just playing my game,” and believes this can continue.
“I’d like to think so,” Porzingis said before invoking the name of one of his idols, Kobe Bryant. “I’m never focused on how many points I scored. I look up at the Jumbotron, it’s all about the score. I’m trying to play my game.
“I watched a Kobe interview, the game he had 81. He said at any moment he didn’t stop, ‘Oh I got 50. I got 60.’ He just kept going. That’s my mentality always. Whatever is going on I just keep being aggressive, keep playing my game, and once the game is over I check my stats.”
Porzingis spent the summer overseas working on his strength — he posted videos and pictures on social media — and it’s showing.
His first two seasons, he was often off-balance and uncomfortable when teams put smaller players on him, and they put all their weight on his legs. Now Porzingis is standing his ground, and using the mismatch to his advantage. He’s turning and shooting over smaller guys.
“My strength is helping my game a lot, just by giving me balance on all those shots,” Porzingis said. “Even though a lot of those shots are contested I’m able to make them through contact.”
At his size there are so many things Porzingis can do that few can, which led to Kevin Durant calling him a “unicorn” two years ago when he was a rookie. Porzingis can pull up and drill a three-pointer from 33 feet as he did against the Nuggets, and he can go inside and wreak havoc around the rim.
On the Nuggets’ possession following the Lee lob to Porzingis, he rejected Mason Plumlee’s dunk attempt. Earlier in the game, Porzingis hit a tough turnaround baseline jumper and then sprinted back and blocked Paul Millsap’s shot at the halftime buzzer.
“He’s 7-3. What can you do, really?” Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “He’s 7-3, can handle the ball, run the lane like a wing. You can’t really — I’m lost for words — you can’t really do much.”
Lee, who got a kick out of the Porzingis videos this summer, believed his talented teammate was ready for the challenge. But he didn’t see this start coming.
“It’s maturity,” Lee said. “He’s up for the task. He knows what’s ahead of him and what we expect from him. He’s doing a great job with it. I didn’t expect him to come out and be dropping 30-balls like this but I’ll take it. He’s learning. He’s only getting better.”