The Knicks trust Pablo Prigioni with the ball, and it (finally) pays
There were plenty of factors in the New York Knicks' 100-83 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, winners of seven straight, Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks played their best defensive game in weeks, holding a Spurs team shooting 48 percent overall and 39 percent from three point range on the season to 36 percent overall and 26.5 percent from three, respectively. The fact that the veteran Spurs team was playing its fourth game in five nights didn't hurt the Knicks, either.
J.R. Smith continued his strong play off the bench. Carmelo Anthony, despite a defensive effort centered around stopping him, still managed to score 23 points. Steve Novak hit five threes.
But the revelation from Thursday night was the extended play of Pablo Prigioni, the 35-year-old N.B.A. rookie and Argentine international, who the Knicks desperately need to be a legitimate option at point guard while Raymond Felton recovers from a fractured pinky.
Thursday night, he was that and more. And recent trends in his play suggest that Prigioni, after a rough start adjusting to the league, may be up to the task.
Prigioni played 27 minutes against the Spurs. He scored only six points, which is fine; they don't need him to score. He also collected nine assists, three steals, two rebounds and a block. Most crucially, however, he committed just one turnover.
The turnovers were the part that's limited his effectiveness, and made him an uncertain fit to play larger minutes for a Knicks team that thrives on protecting the basketball. Felton, though he'd struggled with his shot for weeks, still had a very low 12.1 turnover percentage. Jason Kidd is up to 14.1 percent, but much of that has come recently, being asked to play many more minutes. When more rested, and utilized in the designated shooter and occasional passer mode at shooting guard, he was hovering around 12, too.
As for Prigioni, even after his most recent outing, his season percentage is an awful 26.1 percent. Among N.B.A. guards with at least 400 minutes played, that's second-worst in the league. For a Knicks team that doesn't rebound well, making sure what possessions they do have end in a shot is paramount.
Fortunately for the Knicks, though the samples are too small to draw anything predictive from them, Prigioni has been improving significantly on this score. In his first 21 games, Prigioni turned the ball over at a 31.1 percent clip, while posting an assist rate of 28.7 percent. So a Prigioni-owned possession was more likely to end without a shot than a Prigioni-assisted made shot.
In his last ten games, his assist rate jumped to 35.7 percent, which is quite good, and his turnover rate dropped to 18.8 percent, which is acceptable, though still not at the levels achieved early this season from Felton and Kidd, and more than sufficient to plug the hole until Felton returns.
If you like really small samples, he's been at a 40.6 percent assist rate, and 17.6 percent turnover rate in his past three games. Notably, he's played in more than 22 minutes per contest, up significantly from the 13.7 minutes he averaged over his first 21.
It will take far more data to draw definitive conclusions, but it is far from impossible that Prigioni is improving considerably as he becomes familiar with the league and gets to play more, and get comfortable, within each game.
The recent uptick bodes particularly well for a Knicks team that needs him right now, and even better once Felton returns. At that point, coach Mike Woodson could utilize Prigioni as the main backup to Felton, keeping Felton fresh without losing much in possession, and leaving Jason Kidd free to handle the vital job of punishing teams who pack their defenses on the interior to limit Anthony and Tyson Chandler.
In the meantime, expect to see a lot more Prigioni, who is the only thing standing between the the Knicks and 40-plus minutes for the 39-year-old Kidd at point guard.
If he can take care of the ball like he did Thursday night, that won't be a bad thing.