DALLAS — Late in the game Wednesday night, Kristaps Porzingis rose in the lane to catch a pass and in one motion flipped it behind his back to a cutting teammate. And when it was brought up to him afterward, he said, “It was the only good thing I did tonight.”
Porzingis was a little harsh on himself, which continued late into the night as he spoke passionately about finding his rhythm again. For now, it’s a work in progress and one that is going well, for Porzingis in Dallas — at least better than he was willing to admit.
With the 107-106 win against Orlando Wednesday the Mavericks improved to 5-2, sitting in first place, Porzingis is producing numbers similar to what he did in New York, and maybe most important, beginning his time as a tandem piece to accompany Luka Doncic. His next test comes Friday when the Mavs host the struggling Knicks in his first time against the team that drafted him, made him a franchise centerpiece and then traded him in an acrimonious parting.
"My stamina, my cardio is getting better,” said Porzingis, who struggled through a 10-point effort on 4-for-14 shooting, but is averaging 19 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. “I just want to play well and win games and show what I know I’m capable of. But right now, I’m not there yet. I’m not there yet, and that is very frustrating.
“The only thing I can do is look forward now. This game is past us. I'm happy that we were able to get the win with me playing as awful as I did. On to the next one. I want to figure this thing out. Once I get back to where I want to get back, it will feel even better going through this right now. I just want to figure it out as soon as possible, but I have to give myself time and I have to make it simple for myself.”
Porzingis, 24, has shown perhaps a little rust, but little evidence of his long time away from the game, sitting out since February 6, 2018 when he suffered a torn anterior cruciate at Madison Square Garden, ending his season and his time on the court with the Knicks.
He went from there to surgery and then a long rehab, working his way back from the injury and away from the Knicks. While Knicks coach David Fizdale traveled to Latvia to visit with him to try to mend the problems between the star player and the franchise in the summer, the healing never quite took.
And when Porzingis let the team know of his dissatisfaction with the direction of the team and his faith in them to solve it, refusing to commit to a long-term extension, the Knicks went shopping and sent him to the Mavericks in a deal that shook up the organization. While the Knicks cling to the cap flexibility they got in the deal and the two first-round picks they obtained, so far the return hasn’t panned out.
The cap space went for naught in a loaded free-agent market as the stars would not even give them a meeting and the player obtained in the deal, Dennis Smith Jr., has struggled to live up to his potential. Almost an afterthought in the package sent to Dallas by now, Tim Hardaway Jr., has been better than Smith.
The Mavericks shut down the possibility of Porzingis' return to action last season as soon as the deal was consummated on January 30, waiting for the leg to heal completely. In the meantime, the Mavs signed him to a five-year, $158 million deal, putting the franchise in the hands of Doncic and Porzingis.
“I expected it to be good,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of the pairing. “It’s been good. I think as time goes on and they get more chances to play together it’ll get better and we’ll always look for ways to tweak things so all our players play better and they’re in better positions.”
It helps that while Porzingis finds his way here, the 20-year-old Doncic is already producing staggering numbers — 26.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game entering Wednesday’s game, prompting Carlisle to add, “He’s one of the best players on the planet. So nothing he does surprises me.”
Porzingis just wants to get back to his old self, proving that he merits those sort of descriptions, too. For now, he has the next game against his old team to make a statement.
“I want to get a win,” Porzingis said. “That’s what I want to get. I want to keep winning. We’re 5-2. I haven’t played well once. We have so much more room to grow as a team. That’s the crazy thing. Myself, maybe other guys also struggling in some moments, we’re still able to win games. Once I think we all put this thing together we can be a force and I’m looking forward to that.
“I can’t wait to get back on the court again and fix this, what I did tonight. Not fix it, but to take a step forward in the right direction. I know how much my teammates care about me. They’re trying to get me into the game. They’re looking out for me, things like that, but in the end it’s on my shoulders to figure it out.
"We have another opportunity on Friday against my old team. It’s another game. It’s another game. I’m looking forward to the game and getting a win most importantly, but also for myself individually I want to get back in my groove.”