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Kristaps Porzingis returns to MSG for second time since trade

Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis controls the ball against

Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis controls the ball against Nets shooting guard Bruce Brown during the first quarter at Barclays Center on Feb 27. Credit: Brad Penner

The debate about whether the Knicks should have traded Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks or if they got enough back for him will rage on at least until the second of two No.1 picks received in the deal is used in 2023.

But the Knicks have more immediate and pressing needs in regard to Porzingis, Dallas and the franchise-shifting trade. The Knicks hosted the Mavericks at Madison Square Garden Friday night with the playoffs on their mind, Dallas' 2021 first-round pick on the front office’s mind and a chance to prove the franchise is on the right path.

"I think you just deal with where you are today," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I wasn’t here so I can’t really comment on all that went into the decision-making there. He’s a good player, a terrific talent. They’re an excellent team. And we feel good about the people that we have. So we just worry about today, being ready to play against them. We know we have to play a 48-minute game to win."

It might have been hard to tell that on January 31, 2019 when the Knicks dealt Porzingis, who had been touted as the cornerstone of the team's rebuild. Still just 23 years old at the time of the trade, Porzingis was sent to the Mavs in a cap-clearing move and two years later the team has yet to see the returns come to fruition.

The chase for stars with the cap space has yet to materialize and it helped cost team president Steve Mills his job. The player brought back, Dennis Smith Jr., already has been traded after just 58 games over parts of three seasons with the Knicks. And now with Porzingis joining Luka Doncic — not to mention the play of Tim Hardaway Jr., who also went to Dallas in the deal — the Mavs (25-21 entering Friday) are playing well enough to keep the first of the two first-round picks out of the lottery.

Dallas entered action sitting with the 21st pick, while the Knicks' first-rounder currently is at No. 16. So a Knicks win might hurt their own draft odds, but would at least nudge the Mavs down in the standings.

The immediate concern for the Knicks isn’t who might be around when they use the pick, but how they plan to combat Doncic and Porzingis. Julius Randle, who was a consolation prize in free agency when the Knicks could not obtain their targets, has flourished in his second season. But he realizes Porzingis presents an unusual challenge.

"He’s a good player," Randle said. "He can really shoot the three, obviously. There’s a lot of different dynamics to his game where he can post as well. At the five he’s a problem because he can space the floor really well and has shot-blocking ability. So he’s a good player."

The addition of Porzingis has given the Mavericks an unusual lineup for opponents to counter: a 7-3 front-court player with perimeter skills in Porzingis and a 6-7, 230-pound point guard with the physique of a power forward in Doncic. The duo also provides their team with shooters at every position.

"It’s part of your planning when you go into the season," Thibodeau said. "You look at all the teams and the different things that you’re gonna have to face and you try to prepare for that. So when you do face them, and again, when you have star players like that, you’re not going to guard them individually. You have to guard him with your team."

This was the second visit to Madison Square Garden for Porzingis since the trade. The first time he was greeted with loud boos from the capacity crowd. This time, with only about 2,000 fans allowed into the arena, it might not be as loud, but he understands the message. He doesn’t have his apartment in Manhattan anymore, but had nothing but good things to say about the city and the fans. And he admitted he has changed from the player who saw dysfunction around him and an uncertain future.

"I’m definitely more mature," he said. "Much more mature I would say. Just went through a lot of understood a lot of things. On the court, in basketball, and also outside, even more probably outside."

The former Knicks star, now a top weapon for the Mavericks, says he has matured since leaving New York.

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