The New York Knicks trailed the Indiana Pacers 84-65 with 1:43 left in the third quarter Sunday night, seemingly on their way to another loss that the Madison Square Garden faithful has become all too accustomed to seeing. It was the kind of game that the Knicks would’ve had little chance to win in the last few seasons.

That’s not the case this year. Not with Kristaps Porzingis leading the way.

The 7’3 power forward re-entered the contest before the start of the fourth quarter and hit an 18-footer on his first possession. It was the first two of 15 straight points that he would score for New York, pulling them within 10 points before another Knick would make a shot. When the final buzzer sounded, Porzingis had 40 points and New York won 108-101, giving the Knicks a winning record for the first time in 2017.

Sunday was the best game of Porzingis’ young career. He scored 40 points on 24 shots while grabbing eight rebounds and turning the ball over just once. The 22-year-old added six blocks, and his outstanding defense helped hold the NBA’s fourth-best offensive team to just 39 second-half points.

Porzingis increased his average to 30.2 points per game through the first nine contests of the season. Making 50 percent of his field goals, he’s second in scoring only to Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s third in blocks per game with 2.2, and he’s allowed the lowest field-goal percentage among NBA players that defend at least four shots per game at the rim, per NBA.com.

All of that makes Porzingis a legitimate early MVP candidate in his third NBA season. Only one player in league history has won the MVP award at 22 years old—Derrick Rose did it in 2011—but the Knicks’ big man is unlike anyone that’s ever put on an NBA uniform.

He is a unicorn. He is the superstar the Knicks have been searching for, and the one that can bring New York out of the darkness that has encompassed the franchise for the last 15 years.

Kristaps Porzingis Knicks Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks reacts after a dunk in the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 3, 2017 in New York City. Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

Knicks fans haven’t had much to cheer about since they traded Patrick Ewing back in 2000. The team lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2001 and didn’t have another winning season until 2011 when they traded for Carmelo Anthony.

As good as Anthony was at times—he was a six-time All-Star with New York and third in the 2013 MVP voting—his run in the Big Apple was ultimately a failure. Anthony led the Knicks to the playoffs three times in seven seasons, winning just one postseason series along the way. New York averaged 29 wins over his final four years.

Shortly after the Knicks picked Porzingis fourth overall in the 2015 draft, it became clear that he had superstar potential. Showcasing skills that no one his size has ever possessed, Porzingis finished second in voting for Rookie of the Year as a 20-year-old. In year No.2, the Latvia-native averaged 18.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.

Porzingis was second to Anthony in scoring both seasons. It was time to trade Anthony—a superstar in name only for the last few years—and see what New York’s future could do as the No.1 option.

Despite the questions that former Knicks president Phil Jackson had about Porzingis’ ability to lead the team, the 22-year-old has exceeded even the loftiest expectations.

“The challenge is never too big for me,” Porzingis said Sunday night, via ESPN.com. “I always accept the challenge and that's why I knew coming into this season [if] Melo was not going to be here, then I'm going to have to be that guy and that's why I was just [spending] 24 hours in the gym. I was preparing for this, preparing myself physically, and I'm just happy that I'm capable of playing at this level right now.”

The Knicks outscored the Pacers by 20 points when Porzingis was in the game. New York outscores their opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions when Porzingis is on the court this season. With Porzingis on the bench, the Knicks are 12.2 points worse than their opponents per 100 possessions.  

Porzingis has already scored at least 30 points seven times. He's set a record for total points over the first nine games of a season in team history.

The only players with a better PER than Porzingis that have played at least five games are Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis. Porzingis has the best rebound rate and turnover ratio of that group. Only Curry’s Golden State Warriors have a better record than the Knicks.

The hype that surrounds Porzingis is about much more than the numbers. He makes highlight-reel plays each game that force fans to shake their heads in disbelief.

Porzingis blocks shots that should go in. He runs the floor and handles the ball in a way that someone his size shouldn’t be able to. His three-point range matches that of Dirk Nowitzki, and he stands three inches taller than the Dallas Mavericks’ star. 

That’s why it was unfathomable to think the Knicks actually considered trading Porzingis in the offseason. Jackson made it known that the budding superstar could be had at the right price, and New York engaged with other teams about possible deals before June’s draft.

Jackson’s apparent willingness to deal Porzingis played a role in his departure from the team. The 22-year-old is showing just why New York would’ve been rightly ridiculed for making a trade.

“When you’re 7’3 and have the skills that he has and doing it on both sides of the ball, you’re going to be put up as one of the best players in the league,” Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek told the New York Post Saturday. “KP has that drive. Not a lot of guys have that drive. If they do, they don’t want to put the effort in there to get there. He does. He’s worked hard in the summer. He’s so young, he’s going to get better and better.”

Even after such a hot start, Porzingis is far from a finished product. His three-point percentage, which has increased every season, is only a shade above the league-average. Only one player in the league stands taller, yet 31 players average more rebounds per game.

Porzingis has a long way to go before proving he can stay healthy over the course of an entire season. He missed 10 games as a rookie and 16 games a year ago. This season, he's carrying a heavier load than ever with more than 22 shots per game. Beating out the likes of James, Antetokounmpo, Curry, James Harden and other established stars over 82 games to actually win the MVP award is a long shot.

The Knicks aren’t going to compete for a title this season. They won’t be among the best teams in the East, and they might not even make the playoffs. Much of that depends on Porzingis’ supporting cast.

Enes Kanter is averaging a double-double, ranking seventh in the league in rebounding. Kyle O’Quinn has given the Knicks valuable minutes off the bench, and rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina is getting better with each game. Ntilikina was key in Sunday’s comeback, and the Knicks outscored the Pacers 45-20 with both the 19-year-old and Porzingis on the floor.

The 2017-2018 NBA season was never going to be about wins and losses for the Knicks. A winning record is a bonus to seeing Porzingis turn into the player that fans dreamed he might become.

For the first time in a long time, there is hope in New York. It comes in the form of a potentially transcendent athlete that is ahead of schedule and taking the city by storm.

“Porzingis is special,” veteran center Tyson Chandler told Newsday after Porzingis scored 37 points in New York’s 120-107 win over the Phoenix Suns Friday night. “He has a chance to be the best player in this league.”