NEW YORK -- Usually when the crowd at Madison Square Garden chants “Por-zin-gis! Por-zin-gis!” it means the rookie’s done something spectacular.
A deep 3-pointer. A put-back dunk. A blocked shot.
The New York Knicks were letting a winnable game slip away with the prized rookie on the bench.
So the crowd began a “Por-zin-gis!” chant midway through the fourth quarter.
Derek Fisher was unmoved. He stayed with Robin Lopez over Porzingis down the stretch, a decision that didn’t help the home team.
Nikola Vucevic scored six points while defended by Lopez over a key six-minute stretch in the fourth quarter of Orlando’s 107-99 win over New York.
“Just matchups and the way the game is going,” is how Fisher described his decision to play Lopez instead of Porzingis in the fourth quarter.
“We like, physically, Robin’s size more with Vucevic,” Fisher said.
Maybe Vucevic would have scored just as easily over the 240-pound Porzingis. Maybe he would have scored even more frequently in that fateful six-minute stretch. We'll never know.
But the dynamic that played out between Lopez and Porzingis late Monday night speaks to an issue that Fisher will face again and again in the near future: How much should he play Porzingis at center?
The Knicks’ numbers with the rookie manning the middle are encouraging.
New York’s two most-used lineups with Porzingis at center have outscored opponents by 16 points in the 48 minutes those lineups have been used. That’s a strong number when you consider that, on the season, the two lineups most often used with Lopez at center are being outscored by 1.8 points per 48 minutes.
It's also worth noting that lineups with Porzingis at center are outscoring opponents by 5.9 points per 48 minutes; lineups with Porzingis at forward are outscoring teams by 2.7 points per 48 minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Information's Micah Adams. Lineups with Porzingis at center aren't a cure-all, though.
These lineups are outrebounded by 4.2 boards per 48 minutes; lineups with Porzingis at forward outrebound opponents by 5.9 boards per 48 minutes.
Rebounding deficiencies aside, at least on Knick likes what he's seen from Porzingis at center so far.
“He’s a very versatile player out there. It’s just a matter of coach figuring it out,” Carmelo Anthony says. “I don't think it’s anything [Porzingis is] not doing. It’s just the course of the game, how the game plays and [who] the coach feels is playing well at that point in time.”
On Monday, Fisher stuck with Lance Thomas, Anthony and Lopez down the stretch because of Lopez's size and Thomas' hot hand (he made all nine field-goal attempts in the game). But there is a growing chorus of fans that wants Porzingis to play center more often. And that chorus seems to get louder by the day.
"I think it will be good for us," Fisher said of Porzingis playing center. "But it's probably not a finished product at this point."
Playing Porzingis at center allows Anthony to play power forward -- a position he's thrived at in recent seasons.
It would also impact playing time for the rest of the Knicks' big men. Playing Porzingis at center might mean fewer minutes for Lopez, Kyle O'Quinn and Kevin Seraphin. All three signed as free agents with the Knicks over the summer expecting a spot in the rotation.
The irony is that the Knicks signed Lopez to a four-year $54 million deal, in part, to give Porzingis time to develop.
The rookie has progressed faster than anyone expected, of course. He's struggled with his shot over the last seven games but is blocking 2.7 shots per 36 minutes and allowing opponents to shoot a field-goal percentage at the rim that is nine percent lower than expected, per NBA.com. Those numbers will only fuel those who want to see Porzingis play center more often.
For what it’s worth, the rookie himself believes he needs to add weight before he can defend big men like the 260-pound Vucevic.
“Robin is more of a guy who can hold him. I’m more of a guy who can kind of dance around him and maybe get a steal here and there,” Porzingis said. “That’s my game now because I’m not able to hold those guys yet. [But] I’ll put in a lot of work [to be able to do so]. I’m putting in a lot of work now, and I’ll put in a lot of work in the offseason to next season hopefully be more prepared to play at the 5.”
Yes, the day that Porzingis commands minutes at center is coming. That seems inevitable at this point. It also seems like an issue that the Knicks and Fisher need to prepare for.