The defining play of two fledgling eras—of Kristaps Porzingis’s reign as the Latvian King of Madison Square Garden, of Carmelo Anthony’s burdenless recession into his truest self—conveniently occurred not six minutes into the Thunder’s 105-84 victory against the Knicks in Oklahoma City. With 7:34 left in the first quarter, Melo had Porzingis on an island on the right block and pushed past him for a dunk that clanked high off the back of the rim.
Eight seconds later, Porzingis hit a jumper on the left wing, just inches from the 3-point arc.
Melo shook his head as if to acknowledge the cruel prank that age just played on him, as if to curse the basketball gods for not giving him the satisfying moment of sonning his once–heir apparent. But unlike the past six and a half years in New York, the disappointment didn’t embed itself any further or any longer than the quick jaunt down court. After Porzingis knocked down his long 2, the cameras panned back to Melo. He wore the same wide grin that had been affixed to his face ever since he officially joined the Thunder last month. Melo, in an uneven game, was at peace; Porzingis’s shot, however sweet, was just inches away from being something more.
And with that, the transfer was complete.
In his first game as the Knicks’ undisputed focal point, Porzingis was more or less the player he’s been: a deliriously tantalizing big man in the league, capable of scoring just about anywhere within the half court. KP finished the game with 31 points on 44 percent shooting; it was only the fourth 30-point game of his career. He was placed in all sorts of situations—a lot of post touches against Melo, creating from the top of the arc, coming off screens for jump shots, and down low trying to take advantage of his superior length. And just like his first two seasons in the league, it was a mixed bag. While Porzingis is capable of hitting shots only a handful of players even remotely in his size range would even dream of, it also means he has percentages one would associate with a low-efficiency guard, not a sharpshooting giant. He still doesn’t have the court awareness to always take advantage of the attention he draws, either, and he still struggles to deal with double-teams down low. Of course, it’d all be easier for the Latvian if he had even one competent point guard, or teammates who weren’t so bashful from the perimeter.
On the other side of the coin, Melo found a groove, whether the numbers reflect that or not. (They mostly don’t.) Anthony’s game has always been, at a base level, extremely aesthetically appealing. Few have smoother jabs, few have a more effortless up-down motion on jump shots. And when he’s as relaxed as he is on this team, it can envelop the viewing experience like fondant over a cake. And like fondant, it was a lot of nothing: Melo took 20 shots and hit 40 percent of them; half of those attempts came from 3, and he shot 30 percent from deep. All against his former punching bags from last season. His fellow Big Three buds were a combined plus-52 for the game. Anthony was a plus-one.
But this is what we wanted to see, and from the look on his face the entire game, it’s what he’s looked forward to for a long time. Anthony is on a team that has title aspirations. He is playing for something way more important than he’s ever been afforded to in the past. And yet, at least for now, it all seems like vacation. Being the center of attention in New York sounds like hell. Good luck, Kristaps.