Who would have thought this would happen? Who would have thought that life post-Carmelo Anthony would be easier for the Knicks than life post-Chris Paul has been for the Clippers?
Not Doc Rivers. The Clippers coach never imagined that his team would lose nine straight games before Thanksgiving and that the Clippers (5-11) would get blown out by a young Knicks team, 107-85, on Monday night.
Nor did Rivers imagine that the Knicks (9-7) would be playing as well as they are. Rivers was pretty sure the Knicks would have a rougher time adjusting to the loss of a superstar than his team would.
“For us, I don’t think it [should have been] as hard,” Rivers said about the impact of losing a superstar who had been the face of the franchise. “It would be more interesting if we were healthy and could say that. We still have Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and some remnants. But Melo was a big change. He was the corner piece here, and when you move that, it’s a big change.
“But it looks like it was time for Kristaps Porzingis anyway. I think that wasn’t as hard, either. They both did great things. Chris was phenomenal for us. Melo had some terrific years here. When that happens, you thank them and move on. Franchises just keep going on.”
This night it was the Knicks who were rolling as they beat the Clippers at the Garden for the first time since 2011. Porzingis scored 25 points despite shooting 7-for-20. He got plenty of help as six Knicks hit double figures. Griffin had a rough night, fouling out with 4:46 left after scoring 21 points and shooting 6-for-18.
“They were awful,” Rivers said of his starting unit.
Injuries have played a significant role in the Clippers’ problems as the team has been missing Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic and Patrick Beverley. Still, they don’t tell the entire story. The Clippers have big-name players, a recent tradition of winning and a coach who has won an NBA title. What they don’t have is a player who has made a quantum leap forward like Porzingis.
The surprisingly quick ascension of Porzingis into a dominant, All-Star-caliber player and team leader validates the decision to move Anthony to Oklahoma City. There is a general feeling on the team and around it that for the first time in a while, the Knicks are on the ascension, they have a plan and that the plan might actually work.
Jeff Hornacek was asked about the biggest difference between last season and this one. “We’re not standing around as much, having one guy just go to it,” he said.
Rivers said the transformation has been dramatic. “They’re just playing freer, like they have a whole different spirit,” he said. “They play hard. They’re moving the ball. They play a higher pace. They’re attacking the paint. It’s a different team.’’
The Clippers’ struggles seem to underscore that there was a chemistry problem last season before Paul’s trade to the Rockets — and that the problem apparently has not been solved by his removal.
“We didn’t get rid of him. He got rid of us,” Rivers said.
The Clippers must find a way to get past all that, which is easier said than done. I’m sure there are Clippers fans who don’t remember when the team was really awful, even though that has been the default position for much of their history. And there are plenty of Knicks fans who can’t remember when the team was really good and a lock not only to go to the playoffs but go deep in them every year.
Rivers, who played for the Knicks in the 1990s, does remember what it was like at the Garden back then. And he does see something that reminds him of the good old days. “This team,” he said, “they’re fun to watch.”