Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle didn’t even try to downplay Friday night’s occasion: Kristaps Porzingis, facing the Knicks for the first time since they traded him to Dallas last Jan. 31.
Never mind that it was Porzingis who demanded to be traded. Facing your former team always is personal, no matter the circumstances.
So, it wasn’t surprising to anyone in American Airlines Center that Porzingis, after a slow start, lit up the Knicks for 18 first-half points, though the Mavs found themselves trailing 1-7 New York.
Porzingis fouled out of the game with 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. He tallied 28 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocks as the Mavs lost 106-102.
“Anybody that’s played in the league, or been part of a big trade, in my case been cut and gone to another team, when you play your old team it’s always an occasion,” Carlisle said. “For me to stand here and say it’s no big deal, I’m not fool enough to do that.”
In a bigger-picture sense, this night was a snapshot of where last season’s Mavericks-Knicks trade stands, nine months after the fact.
It’s too early to call the trade a Mavericks win by a knockout, but the Knicks’ organization certainly is reeling from the initial punch’s aftereffects.
The salary cap space the Knicks created by sending four players to the Mavericks, the cap space that was supposed to help New York lure a big-name free agent, turned out to be of little consequence. The Knicks’ biggest free agent acquisition — Dallas native Julius Randle — is a very good player, but not a superstar.
The only player Dallas sent to New York who still is a Knick is Dennis Smith Jr., who in three appearances this season has scored three points and shot 1-of-11 from the field.
Smith on Thursday night rejoined the Knicks after an 11-day bereavement absence, following the death of his stepmother. Before he left the team, he was lustily booed during his brief game appearances at Madison Square Garden.
“I feel bad for Junior,” said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who reached out to Smith to express condolences after his stepmother’s passing. “He’s a good kid.
“But this also probably what he needed,” Cuban added of Smith on-court struggles. “I think he needed some adversity, because he’s smart and he works hard and just needs to come back from this break energized.
“Because New York’s tough. There’s no ifs and buts about it.”
Smith, whom the Mavericks selected with the No. 9 pick of the 2017 draft, took part in the Knicks’ morning shootaround at American Airlines Center, but he was not made available to speak to reporters.
The Knicks said that was a joint decision made by Smith, the NBA and Knicks management because Smith still is grieving and they felt it was not appropriate for him to be answering questions on a day in which he wasn’t playing.
Smith came to American Airlines Center shortly before the game and briefly exchanged well-wishes with Luka Doncic outside the Mavericks’ locker room, but he did not sit on or near the Knicks’ bench during the game.
A source, however, told The News a story about Smith that speaks volumes about his character. Soon after arriving in Dallas on Thursday evening, Smith checked in on the family of Shavon Randle, the 13-year-old Lancaster seventh-grader who in June of 2017 was kidnapped and murdered.
Last December, realizing that Randle’s family was about to spend its second Christmas without Shavon, Smith took Randle’s parents and siblings on a surprise shopping spree.
Smith spent time with the family on Thursday evening and, according to a source, returned on Friday morning to take Randle’s brother and sister to school. Smith returned to the Knicks’ hotel in time to accompany the team to American Airlines Center.
Smith, drafted No. 9 overall by the Mavericks in 2017, was part of the seven-player Jan. 31 trade that brought Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas. He has only appeared in three games this season, averaging eight minutes and one point per game.
Knicks coach David Fizdale said that Smith has been working out on his own, but “we didn’t want to risk [playing him tonight], putting him out there in a tough situation.”
As for the Porzingis trade aftermath? Fizdale mentioned the Mavericks’ two first-round draft picks that were part of the deal, in 2021 and 2023. The ‘21 pick is unprotected and the ’23 pick is top-ten protected.
“We don’t know what Dennis Smith is going to be,’’ Fizdale told New York reporters earlier this week. “He’s 21 years old. We’ve still got two first-round picks out of that. Who knows who that’s going to be? We won’t know exactly what comes out of that for a year or two.”
The Mavericks, conversely, are getting immediate benefits from acquiring Porzingis, despite what he considers to be a slow start to this season after he went 20 months between playing in NBA regular-season games following his torn ACL injury on Feb. 6, 2018.
And the Mavericks are getting contributions from two other ex-Knicks who were part of the trade: Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee.
Motivating as Friday night was for Porzingis to face his ex-team, next Thursday is certain to be even more emotional: That is when the Mavericks and Knicks play in Madison Square Garden. Knicks fans criticized Porzingis immediately after the trade for forcing his way out of New York.
“It’s a part of the business,” Porzingis said. “I have nothing but love for the city of New York and the fans. They showed me so much support from the time I was there. They’re so passionate about the team. That’s normal that they feel that way. All I can do is look forward to what I have in front of me, not behind.”
Carlisle continues to caution reporters and fans not to expect too much out of Porzingis so soon after his return.
Carlisle said the closest current-day NBA comparison to Porzingis’ situation is that of Boston forward Gordon Hayward.
Hayward suffered a gruesome left leg injury, dislocating his ankle and fracturing his tibia, on the opening night of the 2017-18 season.
He returned in time for last season’s opener and played 72 games, but had his worst statistical season since his rookie year: Averaging 11.5 points, 26 minutes and 46% shooting.
“He had good stretches, but you could just tell how challenging it was for him to get real traction,” Carlisle said.
This season Hayward is averaging 20.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists and according to Carlisle is among the NBA’s top four in shot efficiency.
“In his case, it took a year and a summer and a training camp to really get back to that fine-tuned level,” Carlisle said. “Look, I’m not saying it’s going to take that long for K.P. But what I am saying is that we all have to manage expectations about this.
“He’s got to do the same, which is not easy.”