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Knicks 117, Blazers 93: “Great way to start 2020”

Basically a perfect masterpiece of a game

Portland Trail Blazers v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

I don’t think I could’ve possibly picked a better way for the Knicks to start the new decade than how they did last night.

Actually, let’s just get the quote out of the way early. Commenter sbknicks said “Great way to start 2020,” and there were plenty of other clever remarks in the comment section (<3 you guys, Happy New Year), but sometimes simplicity is best.

The Knicks won this game, obviously, 117-93. And the best part was, it was almost solely on the backs of their young players (Julius Randle included, because this new Mike Miller version of Randle is starting to remind me that this dude is actually only eight months older than Kristaps Porzingis). Randle had 22 points, 13 rebounds and three assists, and shot efficiently once again; Mitchell Robinson finished with 22 points (tying his career high) and shot a perfect 11-11 from the field (tying a Knicks record for most shots in a game without a miss); Frank Ntilikina looked reenergized by the new year, dropping nine points, 10 dimes, and one of the most thunderous dunks you could ever hope to see from the kid:

The game also featured only the second time that Carmelo Anthony has returned to MSG since being traded from the Knicks before the 2017-18 season (which seriously feels like eons ago at this point). And, at this point, the sentiment for Melo — especially with lots of “in this past decade...” reflection going around — was overwhelmingly positive, to the point that the MSG crowd was almost cheering louder for Melo than the Knicks to start the game.

In that regard, fans got to have their cake and eat it too, further solidifying this game as a New Year’s masterpiece — Melo had a turn-back-the-clock night, scoring an efficient 26 points, while his team still did enough to prove that the Knicks’ future is more than bright enough two-and-a-half years removed from the trade that sent the team’s former savior away.

Things weren’t all sunshine and buttercups from the start in this one, though. The Knicks spent the first five minutes of the game getting bullied by Hassan Whiteside and struggling to establish much of a rhythm, dropping down 11-6 to start the game. Even once Mitch got in initially, they fell down by as many as seven points. Then came the turning point:

That dunk tied the game. The Knicks still went on to lose the quarter by two points, but their confidence was sufficiently boosted — they didn’t lose a single quarter the rest of the way out, including a monster 34-16 final frame to step on the Blazers’ throats and put this game away.

More impressive than anything, the Knicks didn’t give up the lead once from the time that they took it in the second quarter. The Blazers tied it once in the third quarter before the Knicks began the run that would ultimately lead to their 24-point final margin. For a team that’s struggled with focus after gaining leads this year, that was huge.

Damian Lillard shot a really uncharacteristic 5-20 from the floor and seemed like maybe he went a little too hard bringing in the new year, but had the Knicks let off the gas and started leaving him open, he surely would have figured it out at some point. Instead, this type of effort typified the Knicks’ evening:

Let’s get into the notes:

Mitchell Robinson is fantastic. Point blank period. The seismic shift in the Knicks’ style and level of play once he checked into the game was insane. He’s to the point now where if you only throw single coverage at him around the hoop, forget about it. And if you send double coverage, this Miller-led team is now smart enough to look to the perimeter and figure out who’s open. Look, for example, at how much extra attention Mitch got here:

Anthony Tolliver goes up to try to double-team Frank and force a bad decision, and even with Jaylen Hoard cheating inside off of Portis to get to Mitch, CJ McCollum still felt the need to sag off of Reggie Bullock and go towards him as well.

There are also going to be very few teams that have a true answer for Mitch. Philly maybe comes to mind with Joel Embiid. But other than that, I dunno. For example, Whiteside is a big dude with a rep for being a menace defending the inside and rebounding the ball, and Mitch came in and basically made Whiteside invisible on the court on both ends.

Then the Blazers tried going small, and like, forget it. Melo and Tolliver trying to defend Mitch? It was easy money.

What’s crazy is that even for how dominant this performance was from Mitch, it almost felt like just another day at the office for him. As a fan, not being surprised when your players give excellent performances consistently is the best feeling in the world. Hopefully this version of Mitch is here to stay for good.

— It really can’t be overstated just how difficult and impressive this dunk was:

Mitch catches the ball with one hand, facing away from the hoop, in the air, and somehow finishes it totally cleanly and lands on his feet. My New Year’s resolution is now to never stop appreciating what we have in this guy. And as if the dunk wasn’t enough, Mitch’s play-by-play was even better:

Mitch is an absolute treasure all around and should be treated as such.

— I’m really conflicted about wanting Mitch inserted into the starting lineup. During this most recent run, he’s easily been one of the two best players on the Knicks (with Randle being the other) and completely deserving of reclaiming his starting role. But, that said, the energy that he brings when he gets into the game somehow (despite plenty of evidence of the type of player he is) seems to still be catching teams off guard and letting Mitch feast. On top of that, he doesn’t seem to have any more or less chemistry with either of his two points guards (Ntilikina and Elfrid Payton), so if he comes in off the bench with whoever didn’t start, it doesn’t really hurt him at all. If Taj Gibson keeps being the honorary starter and Mitch continues getting by far the most minutes and closing games, I’m good with it — for now, at least.

— One last Mitch note... Miller pulled him almost right after he made his 11th straight bucket and tied his career-high in points with plenty of time still left in the game. You couldn’t have left him out there for one more bucket??? They were coming so easy! It would’ve been cool for Mitch to set a new career-high and break a Knicks record in one fell swoop. Oh well, I’m sure it won’t be the last time Mitch ties or sets that record. I guess patience is a virtue.

— Frank really found a rhythm tonight and showed off what he can be at his absolute best. This play in particular really made me excited:

Frank tries to lose Afernee Simons quickly. Doesn’t happen. So, quickly — and yet still patiently — he resets and he and Mitch do the same thing again, knowing that Melo is more than likely going to go for the switch, because that has been and will continue to be Melo’s thing on defense forever. Melo goes to double Frank, and Frank uses that awesome wingspan to reach over both defenders and thread the pass to Mitch perfectly, who strolls in for the bucket.

That aforementioned dunk and defensive sequence above were also highlights for Frank, along with a great steal:

And this pull-up triple just oozed BDE:

Of course, as always, the key for Frank is going to be maintaining this level of intensity and confidence. That really seems to be the only thing holding him back at this point. Luckily, it’s not even a motor thing — he’s always trying. It’s just a matter of him getting out his own way and playing loose.

— Can’t stress enough that it was really nice to see Melo back and doing well, but not good enough to actually beat the Knicks. He got tons of applause basically every time he touched the ball, and even after the Blazers put their bench in late in the game and basically waved the white flag, the Garden was still starting “We want Melo!” chants. Regardless of how you felt about how he got here, where his priorities lied, etc. in his time as a Knick, the fact remains that he was easily the best player the Knicks had last decade, and one of the best to ever put on a Knicks jersey. Hopefully he can still milk another year or two out of his career and get one or two more times in the Garden.

— Melo yelling profanities that get by the censors never gets old to me (I was corrected by a helpful Twitter user, he actually said “I got it, fuck outta here”):

— The Knicks’ current facsimile of Melo, Marcus Morris, had a really abysmal first half (0-8 from the floor) before finally igniting in the second half to score 16 of his 18 points (14 of which came in the third quarter).

Mook traded jerseys with Melo to end the game, after saying before the last Knicks-Blazers meeting that Melo was one of the players he really looked up to and tried to pattern his game after when he got to the league. So that was a really nice moment.

Reggie Bullock was awesome in this game. Surprisingly, he was the first wing off the bench for the Knicks at a pretty critical juncture of the game (in the first quarter with the Knicks down 19-15) and he came in and didn’t miss a beat. Bullock finished with 11 points and three boards and shot 4-9 from the floor (3-5 from three). Rust? What’s that?

His conditioning seemed totally on point too, which was maybe the most unexpected part. He only played a little over 15 minutes, so nothing too crazy, but didn’t look at all gassed. He must have really killed it in rehab and then shown out in practice. Nice to have you back, Reggie!

— Mike Breen confused the shit out of me with his pronunciation of Bullock. I’ve always read and said it like “Bull-OCK,” which Breen said once or twice on the telecast. But he also said “Bull-ick” sometimes too. Make up your mind, Mike!

— Every single player on the Knicks’ bench finished with a positive plus/minus, continuing a recent trend where I actually think the bench has been outplaying the starters.

Bobby Portis was on fire again, scoring 17 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. He played just under 21 minutes, which seems to me to be about the sweet spot for how much you want him out there if he’s hitting shots. He also didn’t spend a ton of time out there as the center, getting a quality helping of minutes with Mitch. That’s the way to do it.

RJ Barrett struggled again, which is maybe the one blemish on what was overall a perfect start to the 2020s. The Knicks have now played 34 games, which is about the length of a regular college season, but in over two months’ less time than it took RJ to get to that number at Duke. The rookie wall was going to happen, it was only a matter of time. With any luck, he’ll get through it quickly. If Bullock can consistently play like he did tonight and get up to speed to play 20-plus minutes soon, though, maybe moving RJ to the bench for a bit could help him.

— Lastly, Clyde was looking fresh af to start the new year. Appreciate this:

That’s all for today, folks. Once again, Happy New Year to all of you. I love you all and hope your years go as well as this single-game sample from the Knicks.