PHOENIX — The Knicks’ performance Wednesday night has been as rare as a Phil Jackson sighting at road games. Then again, the Knicks don’t play the Suns every game.
With Jackson on this trip and watching from behind the basket, the Knicks enjoyed their biggest lead of the season, their highest-scoring game and their most lopsided victory. And a player from Jackson’s championship Laker teams had his most prolific night in more than five years and one of the highest of his career.
Veteran guard Sasha Vujacic scored 23 points and helped the Knicks to a 128-97 laugher over the Suns in the second game of a six-game trip.
“I was happy for him,” Knicks interim coach Kurt Rambis said. “It’s hard for guys to sit on the bench. For somebody that has sat and not played for as long as Sasha has and be able to come out and make the contributions he did at both ends of the court it really helped us.”
The Knicks (27-39) led wire-to-wire, were up by 36 in the fourth and rolled to their fifth win in their last 22 games. Their cushion was so large in the fourth quarter that Carmelo Anthony sat and watched from the bench.
Anthony was 9-for-15 with 23 points, but the night belonged to Vujacic.
Rambis inserted Vujacic into the starting lineup with Arron Afflalo unable to play because of a strained right abdominal muscle. Rambis said one of the reasons he chose to go with Vujacic was because of his “harassing defense.” But Vujacic lived up to his nickname, “The Machine.”
Vujacic, who didn’t play in Tuesday’s loss in Denver, made his first seven shots and first six three-pointers. He finished 7-for-8 overall. His season-high before last night was 13, which he surpassed in the first half. Vujacic’s career high is 25 points.
The Suns (17-47) played defense the way the Knicks do on most nights. The Knicks shot 56.1 percent from the field, and were a scorching 16-for-24 from three-point range (66.7 percent).
The Knicks made 10 of their first 15 shots and opened up a 61-34 lead after an Anthony three-point play with 2:50 left in the half. But the Suns outscored the Knicks 41-27 over the next’ 14:35 and close to 88-75 heading to the fourth.
The Knicks opened the fourth with back-to-back three-pointers by Jose Calderon (10 points, 12 assists) and Langston Galloway and extended to 96-75 after a Derrick Williams’ basket. Williams also had three alley-oop dunks in the fourth quarter and scored all 18 of his points in the quarter.
Kristaps Porzingis scored 13, but was just 2-for-10 from the field, as his production and efficiency continues to dip. Rambis has been critical of Porzingis, but has balanced some tough love with unwavering confidence that the rookie will be a great player.
It’s clear, however, that Porzingis isn’t the same player he was earlier in the season, the one that earned team president Phil Jackson praise for picking the perceived project fourth overall.
Porzingis hasn’t been impactful lately. The grind of playing more games and minutes than ever before, combined with the Knicks’ struggles could be taking its toll on the 20-year-old Latvian.
He returned Tuesday in Denver from a one-game absence due to a contused left lower leg, and looked like he could have used another night off. Porzingis had six points and five rebounds.
Afterward, Rambis criticized the Knicks for not following the game plan and Porzingis for forcing his shot too much. But Rambis believes these experiences will help Porzingis.
“I’m not concerned at all,” Rambis said. “He’s still 20-years-old. He’s got a lot to learn and my mindset’s not going to change about him. He’s going to be great. There’s just no doubt in my mind.
“But if we thought it was all going to happen this season and he was going to be perfect and not make mistakes and do everything right and he was going to solve all the mysteries of basketball this year, it just wasn’t going to happen.”
The Knicks have become a mystery because of how far they have fallen and sitting at .500 on Jan. 21. But they jumped on the Suns right away and kept attacking.
Anthony and Vujacic combined to shoot 12-for-14 and score 33 points in the first half that was totally controlled by the Knicks, who led 63-43 after 24 minutes.