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Knicks 105, Bulls 98: “The Bobby Portis game”

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Yay, Knicks!!!

Chicago Bulls v New York Knicks Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

David Fizdale preaches “Keep what you kill.” But what about when there’s no death?

After failing to hold leads in the third quarter, the fourth quarter and the final minute over their first three games, the Knicks rode a dominant final frame and an inspired Bobby Portis to their first win this season, 105-98 over the Chicago Bulls. New York killed off an 18-point deficit — they fell behind by 18 in both halves, actually — and will hopefully keep minding what led them to victory: small gestures, defense, and a team-wide effort. “No Need To Argue” isn’t just a perfect album; they’re wise words to live by. As ugly as things could have gotten tonight, especially after Saturday’s boo birds, the crowd supported the players and the players never quit. Even the much-maligned David Fizdale got a few things right.

As was the case Saturday vs. Boston, the Knicks opened shooting poorly, missing eight of their first nine attempts. Quicker than Rahm Emmanuel’s darkness revealed itself to the world, Chicago was up 18-6, leading my seven-year-old daughter to ask “Why can’t the Knicks just stop time until they score enough points to reach Chicago’s level?” May sound crazy, but 20 years ago no one would’ve believed how many threes teams shoot now.

In a sign of things to come, Portis got the Knicks going by hitting three in a row for a quick seven points. Still, the quarter ended with a Thaddeus Young corner three and Coby White hitting a pull-up in the dying seconds to put the Bulls up 18. There were a lot of quiet moments tonight that could have been overlooked in the moment, things the stat sheet couldn’t tell you. But they added up to craft a sense that this team was not going to throw in the towel. The second quarter opened with Frank Ntilikina hounding White.

New York’s defense followed suit, tightening up: after surrendering 33 in the first, Chicago had just seven points midway through the second. Wayne Ellington did that thing he does where he gets playing time and hits some threes, cutting into the deficit. The Knicks weren’t putting it all together but they kept on keeping on, crashing the offensive glass. The box score can’t explain how for long stretches of the first half Mitchell Robinson was keeping his team from falling behind by 25; when no one else could get anything going, Mitch scrounged for putbacks. It was desperate and ugly, like eating your dead friends to survive a plane crash in the Andes. Whatever. It got the job done. The Knicks’ last basket of the first half was emblematic of their play to that point.

Marcus Morris getting hit with a technical right after that for arguing about a call he didn’t get earlier felt like when I tell my kid not to run in the kitchen with her socks on ‘cuz she could slip, and she keeps running and slips, then she’s crying. I get it. I understand the pain, the wounded pride. But I also wanna strangle her. Same thing with Morris. You’ve been down double-digits most of the night and your team has just 42 at the half. Maybe don’t give the opponent a freebie.

A Lauri Markkanen three and Zach LaVine and-one saw Chicago’s lead reach 18 again. The Knick defense that had given up just 19 in the second quarter hemorrhaged 16 midway through the third. They kept coming back.

But then they’d just fall back again. It really didn’t feel like their night.

Still, the little quiet signs that this night wouldn’t be like the others kept popping up. Morris didn’t lose perspective and try to take over, nor did he disappear, even while struggling with his shot; he hit a rainbow floater while being fouled to cut the gap to seven. RJ Barrett kept scoring and rebounding, earning his first career double-double. Ntilikina couldn’t hit a shot, but there he was forcing White into an airball — the same White who opened the year scoring 17 against Terry Rozier and the Hornets, then 25 against Ja Morant and the Grizzlies.

Also, the Knicks kept missing free throws. It was no fun to watch, and it dragged on and on.

Early in the fourth, Archie D’Amico or whatever his name is hit the kind of corner three that pushes the lead back to double-digits and feels like the nail that breaks the camel’s back, forcing the camel’s owner to find the straw in the coffin.

But there was Knox, hitting another three. There were the Knicks, with 9:00 left, down just six despite a 39/24/61 slash line. Yet hope was always answered with adversity. On a play where the Bulls inbounded to Wendell Carter Jr., Portis pressed so high and so hard he almost ended up past Carter, who needed just two dribbles to set-up and nail a short pull-up. It reminded me of the old Groucho Marx bit from Horse Feathers, when he’s hugging Thelma Todd and she keeps begging him “Closer! Closer!”

After Ntilikina fell to 0-of-6 shooting, he was bench-bound. Immediately LaVine, who Frank had done well guarding, took it to the cup and scored.

Knox struck again from deep, pulling the Knicks to within five. Portis, who more than most players is disproportionately funner to watch when he has the hot hand than frustrating when he doesn’t, hit a running one-hander over Markkanen. And again with the little signs that had started to add up: Ellington showed up on the defensive end, forcing LaVine into a travel via catching his own airball and playing Markkanen tough while forcing him into a miss on a mismatch. Sandwiched between those two stands, a Portis three tied the game.

At this point in time, with 4:19 remaining, Fizdale pulled Portis and Knox and brought back Morris and Mitchell. Why pull the hot hand, Coach?

The Bulls two-point lead quickly mushroomed to eight again, after LaVine and Markkanen threes. This was apparently the moment Fizdale realized Portis has too much life to kill, and therefore he had no right keeping him on the bench, and so Portishead returned to the fray.

And then came the quietest, softest little portent of a seismic shift. With the Knicks inbounding under their own basket, Ellington lost Tomas Satoransky and cut in for a lay-up. That’s it. Just a simple two points. But oh, what it led to. It led to Randle getting bumped by LaVine on a screen and a wide-open Markkanen missing from downtown. It led to Morris canning a fadeaway, and Barrett hitting one free throw, missing the second but following his own miss with a lay-in.

It led to LaVine missing an inexcusably ill-advised pull-up 3 from 30 feet out with 16 left on the shot-clock. That led to a Portis left sideline three, giving New York its first lead of the night with under two minutes left. Portis was open because Markkanen got lost joining three other Bulls in swarming Randle at the top of the free throw line. Props to Julius for dishing rather than wishing and humbling rather than stumbling into a double-/triple-/quadruple-team and almost certain turnover.

If the Knick defense last night was a poem, it was an ABAB form: awful in the odd-numbered quarters, awe-inspiring in the evens. The Bulls got the ball to LaVine, who settled for and missed a pull-up over Portis. Randle again showed patience and vision, finding Portis open on the right sideline for three; now victory was a matter of when, not if. The Knicks closed the game with a 15-0 run. Soon the Garden crowd was chanting “BO-BBY POR-TIS.” It has a certain ring to it. It was uplifting seeing the team’s spirits uplifted.

Being on the right side of a 33-18 fourth quarter never gets old. Neither does beating the hated Bulls. Neither do breakout performances. Portis is the obvious angle from this game, but it really was admirable how many players contributed to the win. Such fun!

Notes:

  • Six Knicks scored in double-figures, led by Portis’ 28. Three had double-doubles, with Robinson just a rebound away from making it four.
  • Remember when people were writing Barrett off? Super, super prematurely?

Well...

  • Nearly as uplifting as the win was Fizdale’s comment afterwards regarding Ntilikina’s performance.
  • Ntilikina helped the Knicks pull this one out. One highlight in particular shows reason for hope that Frank may soon stop failing due to falling into predictable timidities. First, refresh yourself with one of his lowlights from the season opener in San Antonio.

Here is Frank repeating so many of his greatest-hits of mistakes: picking up his dribble too early, stopping any probing of the defense and trying to make a pass all of us, including the defense, know is coming. It’s the same lowlight pass he’s been turning over since his rookie year.

Now, check out last night.

When Portis sets the first pick, Arrivederci or whatever he’s called and Wendell Carter flash toward Frank. You know what they’re thinking — he’s gonna pass it to Portis. Carter leans that way, even.

But Ntilikina keeps the dribble alive and pushes forward. LaVine fakes like he’s going to step out to Frank.

But he’s more concerned with Randle on the baseline.

Frank keeps his dribble alive until he’s ready to take it to the rim, where Thaddeus Young is forced to contest, leaving the cutting Randle open for the easy dunk.

  • It was a very Mitchell Robinson game for Mitchell Robinson, fogs of foul trouble intersected by bursts of brilliance. He even opened the scoring for New York by hitting a jumper. Outside the paint. TAKE THAT FOR DATA! There were also the tantalizing glimpses of what could be.

The tantalizing glimpses of what’s already known.

The tantalizing glimpses of Mr. Robinson, the caring human being.

Wishing Dennis Smith Jr. love and light tonight.

  • Clyde busted out a “kung-fu fighting” to describe Randle’s game. Clyde’s never been more right.
  • Knox shot well from deep and scored 14 in 17 minutes. A good start for him this year. Stay efficient and stay confident, Kev.
  • The two late assists to Portis and the win itself wash a lot of the stink off Randle (13 points, 14 rebounds) nearly pulling off a triple-double with his eight turnovers.
  • Elfrid Payton suffered a sore hamstring in this one. No word yet on his status.
  • Early on, LaVine jumped a steal and got loose for a breakaway dunk.

The NBA needs to give any player who’s fouled when a breakaway’s possible four free throws, just to bring it to a stop. I don’t care if it’s your team getting the dunk or the opponent: watching the best ballers on Earth throwing down with flair and ferocity is cathartic. Let ‘em play.

  • Thaddeus Young makes more money this year than Bernard King did his entire career.
  • Sometimes the Knicks look like a college team that has no shooters, so everything is a drive or entry passes down low. You know that congested look you get when you watch low-level mid-level any college basketball? That’s what the Knick offense looks like. The fiancee asked “Why don’t they ever draft or sign anyone who can shoot?” Wish I knew, babe. Maybe that’s why RJ is playing so well. No one at Duke could shoot, either. He’s pro’ly used to this.
  • OAKAAKUYOAK Luke Kornet has played his entire career with the Knicks and Bulls and honestly he deserves so much better than that. Two points for Mama Kornet’s son in his first game against his old team.
  • Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony were all valuable players. They did not combine to make a good frontcourt. Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle and Marcus Morris are all valuable players. They do not combine to make a good frontcourt.
  • Walt Frazier called Markkanen “Marketon.”
  • Stéphane Matteau was seen sitting on Celebrity Row. You may remember him from such MSG moments as “Matteau! Matteau!”

Quoth LegionofBlue14: “The Bobby Portis game.” Why stop there? Gimme a couple dozen of these this season, multiply it by three or four years and I’m good. The Knicks are back in action tomorrow at Orlando, the first of four games from five on the road. Enjoy tonight’s outcome. Whether it’s the start of greater successes or a blip on the path to being 2-7, the Knicks’ quiet, widespread perseverance was something else to see, man. وَعَلَيْكُمُ السَّلَام‎.