BOSTON – Kristaps Porzingis will never forget the night that Marcus Smart changed his approach to basketball.
The date was Jan. 12, 2016. It marked the New York Knicks’ rising rookie forward’s second meeting with the Boston Celtics, and he was absolutely torching them on his home court.
The 7-foot-3, 20-year-old had racked up 20 points during the first half, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens was searching for any answer to slow him down.
After exhausting several options, Stevens called on Smart for the task. At the time, it seemed like a massive mismatch for Smart, considering he stood 11 inches shorter than the versatile, Latvian big man. Stevens later admitted the assignment was “kinda crazy,” but he also knew that Smart was the feistiest defender on the team and would be up for any challenge.
As it turns out, Smart was the perfect man for the job. The second-year Celtics guard stuck to Porzingis’ hips like glue and was very physical with his lower body. Porzingis had never dealt with that type of defensive counter before; as a result he was limited to six second-half points.
Other teams took notice and began to utilize similar defensive tactics. This has caused Porzingis to change his approach to the game.
“It was something I had never experienced before,” Porzingis recalled Tuesday morning following Knicks shootaround at TD Garden. “[Smart] was getting into my knees, playing hard defense and I wasn’t really ready for it. I think now I’m more prepared for it. I know what’s coming. I know every team is going to try to play physical defense against me, and I just have to make sure I’m ready for that contact.”
Porzingis made it a point to work on his post game over the summer, so that he has plenty of ways to counter when a team throws a small, strong defender on him.
Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek has already noticed a positive difference early on.
“He’s had some nice post-ups where he’s gotten in there,” said Hornacek. “I think the report on him last year was to just be physical with him in the post. And guys have tried that and he gives it right back to them now and shoots over the top.”
New York’s first two opponents – Oklahoma City and Detroit – threw many different looks at Porzingis, but neither team had an answer as he put up 31 points and 33 points, respectively. His offensive outbursts have been largely due to his ability to work around the opposition’s wing defenders.
“I feel more comfortable now playing against the guards,” Porzingis said. “In the last game, [Detroit] put Stanley Johnson on me and I was able to [draw] a couple of fouls and get a couple of and-ones early on. So I’m feeling more comfortable and I take my time when I have a mismatch like that. I try to use my length, shoot over guys and get fouled so they’re forced to put a bigger guy on me.”
Fortunately for Porzingis, he will not have to face Smart tonight when the Knicks take on the Celtics in their first matchup of the season. Boston’s guard rolled both of his ankles during Wednesday’s home opener against Milwaukee and has not been able to practice during the past week.
Still, Porzingis will likely be forced to adjust tonight because of Boston’s small-ball lineup. Hornacek says that if the Celtics continue to play Al Horford at the 5, he will have to counter with Porzingis at the 5.
Porzingis admits that he is not very familiar with the center position, but will do his best to adapt on the fly.
“Whatever position I’m in, I’m going to try to play the best offense and defense I can,” said Porzingis. “Offensively, I think against 5s I’m able to attack them from outside and I can play my game, but then we don’t have anybody inside. We basically have five guys on the perimeter when I’m at the 5, so we’ll see how it goes. If I play the 5 tonight, I’m going to try to adjust as quick as I can.”
Porzingis should be used to adjusting his game by now. He put in a lot of work this summer to become more offensively versatile, and he has Marcus Smart to thank for that.