Indianapolis -- The glory days of the Pacers-Knicks rivalry still resonate, from the cornfields of Central Indiana to the Statue of Liberty.
The luster of the past is one reason Bankers Life Fieldhouse hosted a sellout crowd Saturday as New York made its first visit of the season, the reason one fan donned a t-shirt depicting the infamous choke sign from Reggie Miller directed at Spike Lee.
Be it scoring eight points in 8.9 seconds, Larry Johnson’s four-point play, Patrick Ewing’s missed layup in Game 7, Danny Granger’s buzzer-beater, Roy Hibbert’s rejection of Carmelo Anthony, Hicks vs. Knicks is among the NBA’s all-time matchups replete with memorable moments on both sides.
Myles Turner and Kristapas Porzingis can’t recall hardly any of them.
Reggie’s historic comeback in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs occurred on May 7, 1995, three months before Porzingis was born and 10 months before Turner. When the Pacers defeated New York in 2000 to secure their first trip to the NBA Finals, the two players were still learning to color inside the lines.
But during Indiana’s 123-109 victory, the Pacers’ fifth straight, we were given a glimpse of the great moments yet to come. Turner finished with 13 points and 10 boards, his seventh double-double of the season. Porzingis put up 16 points, four 3-pointers, four boards and four blocks. The Pacers led by as many as 29 points only to watch a Porzingis-led unit comprise of stretch shooters mount an improbable comeback in the closing moments.
History ties the two together. The future will define them.
Both were relative unknowns in their youth. Turner remained anonymous in Texas’ AAU circuit while Porzingis played overseas in Spain and his native Latvia. Both were giants on the court with big doubts regarding their prospects. Turner’s size was negated by his lack of strength while Porzingis was hobbled by an undiagnosed case of anemia. Turner was coached in part by his father and Porzingis is the culmination of an environment wherein basketball is the family business.
Though separated by an ocean, the two became familiar with each other in 2015 during pre-draft workouts in Las Vegas. They spent each day going through the same drills, molding themselves into similar versions of each other. Practice was the only place the two could socialize, as the Strip isn’t conducive to minors.
“We were both underage at the time, and it was Vegas. It’s not like we could go anywhere or do very much.” Turner said.
Since being selected in the draft later that year (Porzingis at No. 4, Turner at No. 11), they’ve become two of the league’s brightest young stars. Both are modern big men who bring defensive might as well as a soft shooting touch, and each is expected to help his team win now.
Regarding the latter, Turner is the early victor. He’s the only one to play in the postseason and has a higher winning percentage unto this point in his career. But Porzingis isn’t too far behind. He’s pushing a mismatched and aging Knicks roster to relevancy, and will one day bear the entire burden of success-starved Knicks fans and the New York media squarely on his lanky shoulders.
On an individual basis, however, their statistics almost mirror each other. Per 36 minutes, Porzingis averages 21 points, eight boards and two blocks while Turner puts up 19, nine and three, respectively. Porzingis is the best rim-protector in the league among players who contest four attempts per game, holding opponents to 42.4 percent. Tuner entered Saturday tied for second in the league in total blocks with 89.
Anything one can do, the other does just as well.
“Those two guys are the guy,” C.J. Miles said. “They call Porzingis ‘The Unicorn,’ or whatever. We gotta make up a name for Myles, too. He’s along the same lines of those game-changing bigs. Watching all these guys, theses bigs, they can play inside and outside. You’ve got Myles, who is a shot-blocking 3-point shooter, and you’ve got Porzingis, who is the same. And with the things they do, the dribble moves, the step backs, the game changes.”
The Pacers-Knicks rivalry was in desperate need of a jump-start a few years ago. The Knicks spiraled downward this millennium after a series of bad trades (Andrea Bargnani), worse signings (Eddy Curry) and even worse coaching hires (Derek Fisher). Indiana’s post-Reggie era was marred by fallout from The Brawl and having Jim O’Brien coach players named Troy Murphy and Travis Diener. Games that once delivered fireworks instead brought apathy and disinterest.
Turner and Porzingis are already making these games sexy again.
They’ve only played each other three times, with Turner besting his counterpart 2-1, but every game has featured intrigue, drama and intensity -- elements missing from an old rivalry that had seemingly burned out. Where Turner has demonstrated his multi-faceted skill set, Porzingis has done the same. Last year saw Turner out-do Porzingis, scoring 24 points to his 22 as Indy got the 108-105 win. Though both played to a draw on December 20, scoring 21 points apiece, Porzingis won round two, 118-111.
Their similarities are what make their future matchups intriguing. The Pacers never had a Patrick Ewing and the Knicks never had a Reggie. Though Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are elite talents, George’s prime comes a few years too late for Melo, a once-great player who is now merely good.
Porzingis and Turner are connected in a way not yet seen in this series. Here’s hoping the rest of their matchups are as enjoyable as the previous three. They crave it, and we deserve it.