DALLAS — It will never lead them to the promised land, but the Knicks will always have Friday night.
Taking their first shot at Kristaps Porzingis since embarking on a messy divorce and trading their former lottery pick to the Mavericks in January, the Knicks got the first laugh and snapped a four-game losing streak with a 106-102 win at American Airlines Center.
The Knicks (2-7) ended the night on top with Porzingis watching from the bench, having fouled out after posting 28 points and nine rebounds.
Frank Ntilikina didn’t put up the gaudy stats Porzingis and his new partner in crime, Luka Doncic, did, but he starred in what might have been the best night of his career, racking up 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocks.
Marcus Morris (29 points, nine rebounds) broke a 92-92 tie with five straight points before Taj Gibson and Julius Randle extended the lead to 101-92 with less than two minutes left.
The Mavericks (5-3) closed within 103-99 before RJ Barrett missed a pair of free throws, but Julius Randle collected the rebound, drew a foul from Porzingis — his sixth, ending his night with 30 seconds left — and hit both free throws for the 105-99 advantage.
Former Knick Tim Hardaway Jr., part of the Porzingis trade, nailed a 3-pointer to make it 105-102 with 27.6 seconds left. But the Mavericks came up empty from there.
After playing the first 186 games of his NBA career in a Knicks uniform, and looking like he was on his way to becoming their franchise cornerstone until tearing his ACL in February 2018, Porzingis played against them for the first time. He will make his Garden homecoming on Thursday, in what surely will be a hostile environment.
Ntilikina — one of just two Knicks (along with Damyean Dotson) left who actually played with Porzingis — rose to the occasion as well. Making his fourth straight start at point guard, Ntilikina played his typically strong defense, but also caught fire on offense, shooting 4-of-5 from deep. He even tried to posterize Porzingis in the second quarter. Porzingis was initially called for a foul, but the Mavericks challenged the call and replay review showed he got all ball on the block and the call was overturned.
Doncic finished with a triple-double (38 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists) in the loss.
After leading 61-57 at halftime, the Knicks took their biggest lead yet late in the third quarter on back-to-back 3-pointers from Randle and Morris that made it 80-69. The two veteran forwards — who gladly took part of huge cap space that had been earmarked for much splashier free agents after the Knicks opened it up by trading Porzingis — combined for 50 points and 17 rebounds.
The Knicks’ biggest lead was 84-72, but Doncic brought the Mavericks back nearly single-handedly, his 8-0 run closing the gap to 84-80 by the end of the third quarter.
The Knicks came into the game wanting to get back to the physical style they had spent all summer and preseason talking about. They had to do it without Mitchell Robinson, their shot-blocking center who sat out with a concussion he suffered Wednesday in a loss to the Pistons.
Early on, that physical edge will still largely missing.
After having his least productive night of the early season Wednesday night against the Magic (10 points on 4-of-14 shooting and eight rebounds), Porzingis got off to a much better start Friday. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said he wanted to get him better shots, and the Knicks immediately obliged, leaving Porzingis wide open to drain his second 3 in as many attempts in the opening minutes for an early 12-9 lead.
But the Knicks soon pushed back, crafting a 12-2 run to take a lead that grew as big as 10 points before going into the break with a 61-57 advantage.
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