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Knicks 95, Pistons 92: “The Knicks have won four in a row. They’re five games out of a playoff spot. It’s OK to feel joy.”

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A very un-Knicksy win streak

New York Knicks v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

There was a point in this game where it seemed like things were going to go the way that they usually go for the Knicks.

Coming in, the team was riding a nearly-inexplicable three-game winning streak. Victories last Saturday and Monday were about as dissimilar as two wins could be — one, a grind-it-out slugfest against a legitimate Eastern Conference playoff team, the other an overtime scoring fest against a fellow cellar-dweller — that shared one common thread, that being Marcus Morris saving the day in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Then came Thursday night, fresh off trading that same Marcus Morris, and the Knicks somehow pulled out yet another close win against a Magic team that actually has something to play for. Probably just that post-trade “prove-it” attitude though, right?

So tonight, against the Pistons — who just shipped out their best player for a bag of chips and were without both Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose — seemed like the perfect night for the Knicks to have a classic Knicks letdown game. Like, how could they win, right? There’s no way. These are the games that the Knicks always lose, almost without fail. Just when you’re feeling good about something, the reality of the situation that is being a New York Knicks fan rolls up, kicks you wherever it hurts you most to be kicked, tells you you were an idiot for ever believing in this team, and then, for good measure, shoots you in the kneecap and drives away.

But tonight was different, weirdly. The Knicks followed the script early. Thon Maker was balling out, basically dominating the Knicks to start the game in the same way that Andre Drummond often would in meetings between the two.

New York would go on to lose the first quarter, 28-17, and embarrassment seemed all but inevitable. The interior D was nonexistent, the team had no punch on offense. It just seemed like one of those games that wasn’t gonna be a good time.

But then, to close the half, things changed. The Knicks finally tightened up a little. For the last 5:14 of the second quarter, the Knicks took a nine-point deficit (that had topped out at 13) and whittled it down to two before the break after stringing together a 14-7 run.

The Pistons kept the Knicks mostly at arm’s length for the third quarter, but by the end of it the Knicks had gained enough momentum to tie things up heading into the fourth. And even then, with the tide seemingly turned, the Knicks managed to fall down by seven again with 6:26 in the game. Then, a... well-spaced (?) lineup that made perfect sense (???) entered the game — Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson — and proceeded to bury the Pistons down the stretch, including a hustle-rific stretch while up by two points with a minute left, creating two extra opportunities via offensive rebounds and letting Randle ice the game with a layup at the 13.5-second mark.

And with that (after a really wild made three by Christian Wood and two clutch free throws by Bullock), the Knicks closed out maybe their most unpredictable win of this current streak, managing to not be themselves for once in the best way possible.

Let’s do some notes:

— Wayne Ellington, who sucked so much ass every time he touched the court before the trade deadline, has been kicking so much ass these last couple games. What the hell, man??

Ellington finished with 17 points on 6-12 shooting in 27 minutes, including seven in the final quarter. He’s (finally) shooting with the confidence and poise of the 11-year vet the Knicks signed him to be. It just sucks it took til now! This little outburst would’ve been great a few weeks ago, and perhaps the Knicks could’ve sent Ellington to a contender too and stacked more picks along with the two they got in the Morris trade. Instead, these last couple games might just be a tryout for whatever team Ellington decides to sign with when he gets bought out. Oh well.

— If or when Ellington does get bought out, though, the Knicks might already be mildly boned. A large part of why they were able to win these last four games was clutch shot-making by Morris first, and then clutch shot-making by Ellington. The thing with kids is, they’re kids. RJ Barrett couldn’t even stay on the floor tonight, playing arguably his worst game as a pro (three points on 1-8 shooting in 20 minutes). Dennis Smith Jr. didn’t look as comfortable as he has lately. Kevin Knox actually played a pretty good game. Frank Ntilikina only played 14 minutes for some reason. I don’t think I’d have trusted any of them to take the clutch shots down the stretch, though. Ellington filled that void nicely.

— That brings up a really interesting thing we’re gonna have to see play out over the next week or two... This team, believe it or not, is only five games out of a [redacted] spot. I shouldn’t be saying [redacted], because this team has looked more like a No. 1 pick contender than a [redacted] team this year, but it’s just math. The East sucks, and there’s potentially an opening there.

So, do the Knicks keep letting the one-year wonders like Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock soak up 30 minutes a game while the young core of this team loses valuable NBA service time in the name of wins? Or at a certain point will it become more advantageous to just play the kids anyway, wins and losses be damned? I guess it depends where one’s priorities lie. For now, I think Mike Miller’s just going to ride the winning wave, which seems to have the whole team in good spirits, and that’s the way to go. But the next time a three- or four-game losing streak comes around and that [redacted] deficit balloons back up to around eight games? Maybe then it’s time to just punt.

Randle has proven lately that no matter how shitty he plays the for the first however many minutes of a game sometimes, he can really come through when the game is in reach late. He not only secured some rebounds down the stretch of this one, but made some clutch shots as well for a second straight game on his way to 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists on 7-17 shooting. It’s easy to forget, but he’s pretty young too: just months older than the supposed “young core piece” that the Knicks sent to Dallas last year. I think Randle is still learning how to bring it every single play every single night, and if he can figure that out and start giving his “final five minutes” effort for the full 48 every game, he might still have some room to grow yet.

Mitchell Robinson put together the type of limited-minutes stint that reminds you just how good he is, yet also frustrates you that early foul trouble can sometimes mean only getting him for 19 minutes in a night.

Mitch finished with seven points, five rebounds and three blocks (one was subtracted at some point, because it seemed he had four), and put on the sort of two-way performance that inspires a lot of confidence for him going forward — if he can stay on the court.

— Elfrid Payton stuffed the stat sheet again with 10 points, nine boards, seven assists, two steals and a block. It’s like, super frustrating that Elf has gone through stretches this year where he didn’t seem to be giving 100% on both ends, because the last few games have really been eye-opening to the type of player he can be when he’s giving it his all. He’s initiating the offense, penetrating at will, making great reads, and most importantly, playing great individual and team defense.

— The Knicks matched their win total from last season in this game (17).

— Similarly, Mike Miller has now gone 13-18 to start his run as Knicks coach. That’s a 34-win pace, AKA double what the Knicks did last year. Even the most hopeful projection didn’t have the Knicks anywhere near that to start the year.

If David Fizdale’s 4-18 start had never happened, and this team was in the thick of a playoff race, would as many people be micro-analyzing who’s playing? Because it seems like now, even in the midst of the longest win streak in three years (with legitimately fun wins!), not too many people want to be happy because it’s coming on the backs of some of the older players late in games. Is there nothing to be said for the younger guys learning through observation sometimes? Why not ride this stretch of hot play as long as possible and have a little fun with it?

— I kinda want to keep Ellington around for this stretch run if he continues playing the way he has the last couple games. On the flip side, Bobby Portis could shoot 100% from the field for the next five games and I’d gladly support releasing him. I just don’t enjoy watching him play.

Moe Harkless didn’t make his Knicks debut despite being available, but he commented before the game that he’s super excited to be playing for his hometown Knicks. It’s always cool when New Yorkers get to put on the orange and blue.

— Free Frank. That is all.

It’s late, I stupidly watched the UFC fight instead of writing this, and I’m super tired. So with that, let’s end this recap. But that was a hell of a fun game, and the Knicks have a VERY real chance of a five-game win streak against the Hawks on Sunday in a road back-to-back. It’s probably cheating to quote the guy that normally writes these recaps, but, so said MMiranda, “The Knicks have won four in a row. They’re five games out of a playoff spot. It’s OK to feel joy.” Take heed, guys. Have a little fun. The lottery odds suck, anyway.