Last season did not end well at all for Kristaps Porzingis.
The Dallas Mavericks’ starting power forward averaged a lowly 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game versus the Los Angeles Clippers in their seven-game first round match-up. Their brief postseason run ended with them being eliminated prematurely by the Clippers for the second consecutive year, despite the transcendent brilliance of Luka Doncic, and the blame was placed largely on Porzingis.
Throughout the series and in the aftermath of their Game 7 loss, Porzingis was scrutinized as the weak link on the Mavericks and there was nothing about his on court performance that would have suggested otherwise. He looked tentative and even disengaged at times, content with taking long jump shots and seemingly unwilling to mix it up inside versus what was perceived to be an inferior set of Clipper big men.
The 7’3 forward was a shell of himself and his dismal play made it easy to forget that less than a year before, he put up 34 points and 13 rebounds in Game 3 of their 2020 playoff series with Los Angeles which was his last game in the NBA Bubble prior to suffering a meniscus tear.
Porzingis had to undergo surgery before last season and it caused him to miss the first nine games of the season. His knee woes dragged on throughout the season, forcing him to miss a total of 29 contests. This includes 10 missed games over the final few weeks of the regular season during the build-up to the playoffs.
It is easy to forget the tumultuous build up to last season’s postseason that the Latvian forward went through and while he never explicitly pinned it as the reason for his underperformance, it is quite obvious that the drop off in his play was due to his recovery from his lingering knee woes.
With a full offseason behind him and his forgettable ‘20-’21 campaign, Porzingis looks focused and over the past two weeks has flashed his familiar form that once had Madison Square Garden’s cutthroat fans swooning over him.
In his six appearances since sitting out five games three weeks ago with back soreness, the one-time NBA All-Star has tallied at least 21 points in five of those contests.
He has come on particularly strong over the Mavericks’ last three games, beginning with a 32-point outing versus the San Antonio Spurs that led to a 123-109 triumph. In their following game, he went toe-to-toe with reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic and finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a block. Dallas went on to take an impressive 111-101 win over Jokic’s Denver Nuggets which was their ninth victory in their first 13 games of the year.
Unfortunately, Doncic went down with a minor ankle injury against the Nuggets and had to miss their succeeding contest which pitted them versus the reigning Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns. With his Slovenian wunderkind teammate sidelined, Porzingis made the most of his opportunity.
The Mavericks eventually succumbed to the Suns, but they put up a gallant effort despite missing their leading scorer. They led by five through three quarters before the Suns outscored them in the fourth by 12 points, 37-25, to take a 105-98 win. Porzingis stepped up and continued his renaissance with 21 points, eight rebounds, and a career-high seven assists to go with a steal, two blocks, and just one turnover.
While Porzingis’ play as of late has been encouraging, his on-court demeanor adds even more reason to be optimistic about him. Although he is still not as mobile as he was prior to his string of injuries through the years, he has been active on defense and has had his fair share of impressive blocks. On offense, he has made 2.5 threes per game over their last six matches and has shot over 50% from the field in four of those outings.
In the wake of their loss to Phoenix, Dallas now finds themselves in a four-way tie for third place in the West with a 9-5 win-loss card. They have weathered a relatively slow start from Doncic and have been a pleasant surprise in this ever-competitive conference. Porzingis has been a major factor behind this and what makes this even scarier for the rest of the league is that he is still far from his peak form.
He has yet to revisit his peak level of play that was last seen in the ‘17-’18 campaign where he made his sole NBA All-Star appearance so far while still with the New York Knicks. His breakout year was cut short by an ACL tear and his health has been a limiting factor ever since.
If he can continue to regain his form and remain on the court instead of the sidelines, his partnership with Doncic can potentially rank as one of the most lethal two-man duos in the league. He still has a long way to go before he can rightfully reclaim his “Unicorn” moniker, but he has at least proven over the past few weeks that the magic is still within him.
The only remaining challenge for Porzingis and the Mavericks is to find a way to keep him healthy so that he can finally be the difference-maker that they expected him to be when they acquired him more than two years ago.