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SportsColumnistsAl Iannazzone

Kristaps Porzingis sees playoff spot for youthful, energetic Knicks

There’s still a long way to go, but the Knicks went into the weekend with a .500 record.

Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis puts up a shot

Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis puts up a shot against the Grizzlies' Mario Chalmers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Kristaps Porzingis knew everything would be different without Carmelo Anthony. But he believed the Knicks would win more games than anyone expected, felt they could make the playoffs.

And Porzingis wasn’t alone.

“Most of the guys that I talk to were like,’ Yeah, we can do it,’” Porzingis said. “It’s been on my mind the whole time.

“I knew with a younger group we were going to be able to keep our energy up throughout the season and play hard 82 games. I don’t know how good we’re going to be but just to have the youth and the hunger that we’re going to be capable of fighting for a playoff spot. My first two years we weren’t even close. I believe that this year we have a better chance.”

There’s still a long way to go, but the Knicks went into weekend with a .500 record — far better than anyone expected. It should be noted the Knicks were 14-10 last year and finished 31-51. They were 22-22 the year before and finished 32-50.

Those teams had more talent, but they also dealt with much more drama that impacted their season. If this team can just focus on basketball — and Porzingis doesn’t sustain more injuries — they could continue to surprise.

The Knicks are 12-8 when Porzingis plays. Enes Kanter, who came from Oklahoma City in the Anthony deal, has been a great addition. Courtney Lee is having the best year of his career. Tim Hardaway Jr. was playing well before suffering a leg injury. The Knicks hope they can stay afloat without him.

They’re in a relatively favorable stretch now — the Bulls were the second of seven consecutive opponents with sub-.500 records. The Knicks need to take advantage of that since 17 of their following 23 games are on the road.

But Porzingis’ attitude, the Knicks’ performance and the way Jeff Hornacek is coaching show the plan was to play to win and not to get the most lottery chances.

“ . . . That’s the right direction to go: rebuild, have young guys and play hard and build a new team,” Porzingis said. “But not at any moment in my mind has there been a thought that maybe we can lose this game so we can get a better draft pick. I’m not about that. I want to win every game.”

LEARNING THE LEAGUE

Rookie Frank Ntilikina hasn’t been finishing games as much as earlier in the season. Hornacek said he’s doing it based on how the game is going and how Ntilikina is playing.

Donovan Mitchell and Dennis Smith Jr. — two guards the Knicks passed on to grab Ntilikina eighth — are playing and producing more than the 19-year-old Frenchman. But Hornacek believes Ntilikina “is going to get better and better.”

Hornacek said Ntilikina is still figuring out when to attack versus when to pass. Hornacek would like to see Ntilikina do both, “attack and make a play.” Hornacek also expects Ntilikina to play better against teams and players after facing them a couple of times because he’ll pick up their defensive tendencies.

ON THE MARKS

Much has been made — and rightfully so — about the three unprotected first-round picks the Nets gave Boston when they acquired Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry in 2014. That was the old regime. Second-year GM Sean Marks has done well in collecting assets and high draft picks.

Since June, Marks has acquired the second and third choices of the 2015 draft, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor, No. 8 pick in 2014 Nik Stauskas, one first-round pick and two second-rounds.

Getting Okafor from Philadelphia was a definite low-risk, high-reward deal. He’s a talented low-post scorer, who fell out of favor with the emergence of rising star Joel Embiid. Nets are very good at player development under Northport native Kenny Atkinson and Okafor wants to prove himself. So this could work very well for both parties.

If Russell gets healthy and he clicks with Okafor, the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick that Boston traded to Cleveland in the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas deal may not be as valuable. The Nets already have won 10 games, something they didn’t do until March last year.

WAY OF WADE

LeBron James already is touting Dwyane Wade as Sixth Man of the Year. If Wade continues his recent play, he will be a candidate.

During the Cavaliers’ recent 13-game winning, Wade averaged 13.8, 4.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists. He entered Saturday averaging 12.3 points and 4.0 assists for the season.

It’s been quite a turnaround for the Cavaliers — who started 5-7 — and for Wade. After reuniting with James, Wade was made a starter, which upset some on the team. Wade later accepted a reserve role, and has been coming off the bench since the fourth game of the season.

“That’s someone who’s selfless,” James said.

This isn’t the first time Wade willingly took a backseat, which isn’t something a perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer often does.

Wade deferred to James in their second season together in Miami, and everyone benefitted. The Heat won two straight NBA championships.

“I don’t carry myself as a superstar,” Wade said recently. “I carry myself as a basketball player. From the outside perspective, the fan base, and the things I’ve been able to do, I’m looked at as a superstar. But I’m a part of the team and trying to figure out a way that I can be at my best and the team can be at their best with what I bring.”

COOL IT, KD

Kevin Durant definitely has shown more of a mean streak lately. He’s already been ejected from three games this season. He was ejected just twice in his prior 810 games.

Durant, who was thrown out with 1:14 left in Monday’s win over the Pelicans after getting into a dust-up with DeMarcus Cousins, said there is a method to his madness.

“Every time I get ejected I make sure it’s late in the game,” Durant said. “I’m not messing up like that in the first or second quarter — make sure it’s late in the game if I want to do something.”

Still, Durant said he’s got to be “more focused” and “more poised.” A more focused and poised Durant had a triple-double in the next game to lead the Warriors, without Steph Curry, over Charlotte.

ACCESS DENIED

Call it the “LaVar Ball rule.”

The Lakers are enforcing an existing policy that no longer allows the media in a section of the Staples Center relegated for family and associates of players, according to ESPN.com. Previously, reporters could interview people in that area.

Earlier this season, Ball was critical of the Lakers’ coaching staff, saying they’re “soft” and they’re “trying to baby” his son rookie guard Lonzo Ball.

The Lakers seemingly are trying to prevent LaVar from speaking after every game and being critical of the team. But this won’t stop the outspoken Ball from speaking altogether.

FAST BREAKS

n The Knicks are in the bottom third in free throws attempted per game (20.1). Porzingis and Hardaway take more than half of them (10.2), and in the two games they both missed the Knicks took a total of 25 free throws. Hornacek said the players need to practice drawing fouls.

“Guys who know how to draw fouls, when the guy is moving, just run into him,” Hornacek said. “I wouldn’t call that a natural basketball play. But guys are getting calls, getting free throws. That’s what we have to do. We have to learn that. That’s a good skill to have and to practice.”

n Cousins already has two 40-point, 20-rebound games. The last player with multiple 40-20 games in the same season was Knicks legend Patrick Ewing in 1989-90.

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