Vibes were high from the jump. The influence of Knicks branding guru Steve Stoute has been felt in recent shootaround playlists. Players ran out the Madison Square Garden tunnel to Pop Smoke’s “Tell the Vision” narrating their dramatic entrance. By the time they began launching practice shots, RJ Barrett was rapping along with Drake’s verse from “Way 2 Sexy.” Dipset played next, with Cam’ron and Juelz Santana’s “Welcome to New York City” keeping the atmosphere local. Stoute’s influence is a welcome break from the Counting Crows playing during warm-ups as recently as three years ago.
The home team was loose and feeling right even with no Kemba Walker. Tom Thibodeau gave the starting point guard the night off. While Thibs giving any player not in his doghouse rest is a welcome aberration, there is a fear of limiting Walker from gaining further in-game chemistry with Julius Randle and company after Randle missed the last game welcoming the birth of his second child.
Yet something was amiss from tip-off, starting with too many plays ran for Taj Gibson, who was once again starting in place of Mitchell Robinson, who remained out injured along with Nerlens Noel. But oddly enough, Gibson delivered. At 36, the guy seems to be ageless. He started with back-to-back set shots, reminding Knick fans of mid-2000s Kurt Thomas. And it didn’t stop on the offensive end. Gibson seemed to be everywhere in the first half, contesting shots, playing passing lanes, throwing his chiseled body into the fray to disrupt the Pistons’ game plan. He finished the half with 10 and 7, the second-leading Knick scorer behind 12 from Derrick Rose, riding high from proposing to girlfriend Alaina Anderson in a half-court dinner in MSG last night.
But the Pistons came to play. With 2021 #1 pick Cade Cunningham and 2020 lottery guard Killian Hayes out, it was Jerami Grant and a bunch of no-names, and that seemed to be enough during a tight half filled with chippy play from both teams. But as sweet of a story as a Taj Gibson throwback night is on face value, it also means the rest of the team is struggling. Randle’s got sucked into a back-and-forth with Grant and got bested in the process, at least in the first half. Worries about Randle integrating back into the lineup seemed legitimate with the Knicks starters out of sync, favoring misguided threes and relying on way too many Gibson bailout shots.
Barrett, after a solid preseason from 3 (8 of 14), was especially bad in the first half. It’s clear the effort is there. As is the fire to get better. But the kid just seems to try way too hard at times. None of this discounts his abilities or potential. Nor is it indicative of what he can accomplish this season. It’s simply an observation that when his shot is off, he needs to look for others and excel on effort, fighting for offensive boards and taking shots in rhythm, instead of attempting contested shots at the rim. And he wasn’t the only one.
Immanuel Quickley was even worse at the basket, picking up from last year’s trend of picking up his dribble way too soon, just below the free throw line, and taking low-percentage floaters. At the half he was scoreless with a single assist. And let’s be honest: Quickley at the point is not working. It’s been a small sample size, sure, and the kid can pass with the best of them, but he does not have the instincts or temperament to be a lead playmaker. He is a shoot-first guard who thrives on volume gunning. And that’s perfectly fine; elite, even, in a bench role. But any hopes of him eventually taking over the starting point guard spot need to be tempered with at least another full season of trial and error. With the Pistons lottery backcourt out of commission and IQ facing fringe NBA talent, he was totally unprepared for the assignment.
The second half saw the Knicks fall into the biggest hole of the game, trailing by eight after their defense sputtered from a clear lack of effort. Thibs was clearly furious on the sidelines; now that coaches don’t have to wear masks, we all were privy to the old-school fire and brimstone on display on Thibs’ face. After a time-out where he absolutely reamed his team, Randle returned to form. With three minutes left in the third he took back the mantle as leading scorer, exploiting the weaknesses of Detroit’s lack of talent and embarrassing Grant in their matchup. After starting 0-3 from deep, he ended the third with back-to-back-to-back 3s, injecting the team with energy and showing his lead-by-example moxie. Randle had 16 of his 24 in the third, going 5-fo-5 from the field and adding 7 boards. Barrett, too, found his form, driving to the rim off a smooth pass from Randle and drawing contact for an and-one. And surprise, surprise, he hit the free throw, giving the Knicks their first lead of the game. Clutch, kid.
With only seconds left in the third, Barrett would brick a three but went after the rebound, catching and leading a charge towards the basket for a tough shot in the paint. He also facilitated, leading the team with five assists through three quarters and six for the game. During the 13-point turnaround in the third, Randle and Barrett not only led the charge offensively but rallied the fan base back into action, galvanizing a frustrated crowd which started the second half quiet as hell and just as pissed as Thibs at their team’s lazy defense. Everything changes when the Garden erupts behind their squad. It’s great to have a duo who can deliver this changing tide when needed.
Jericho Sims, the most herald rookie thus far and instant fan favorite, returned to Earth. Surprising, since the Pistons are a porous rebounding team and lack any real size up front with starting power forward Josh Jackson and starting center Isaiah Stewart both standing 6’8. Sims was horrible on defense, missing assignments and earning the ire of Thibs, who went with the other Simms, Amir. Jericho would not return in the second half. Amir played much better team defense, getting himself in position and making crisp rotations, though lacking the athleticism to shut anyone down by himself.
The minutes with Aamir were a welcome escape from a frontcourt I hope to never see again: Kevin Knox, Obi Toppin and Jericho. Not sure how long this trio lasted on the court, but they failed to keep anyone out of the paint and Obi and Knox were just not on from 3 — although Obi plays better defense game to game and looked good alongside Rose, per usual. Toppin has shown tremendous growth in confidence and communication, two metrics any player must have in droves to earn minutes under Thibs. He was talkative on offense and defense and made great plays between the 3-point line and the basket, rotating the ball from left to right.
The fourth quarter would be a battle of attrition, with both teams shrinking their rotation to six or seven players. Thibs went with a line-up of Rose-RJ-Randle-Gibson-Alec Burks to close. Burks, this preseason’s most impressive reserve, hit a big 3 at the six-minute mark to give the Knicks the lead at 93-90. His activity on defense was pivotal as well. Burks and Evan Fournier aren’t gifted one-on-one defenders, but are willing to do the little things. In fact, it would behoove the Knicks to play Fournier more in the fourth. He is a pure three-level scorer, but it seems like Thibs doesn’t have trust in him yet to provide good defense individually at the end of games.
The Pistons under Dwane Casey are a feisty bunch. Casey brings championship pedigree from his time as the defensive architect of the 2011 champion Dallas Mavericks. Things got tight again with the game winding down; Randle’s fourth three-pointer of the night at the 4:42 mark came just in time. Even with more depth this year, we will need moments like this from Randle. There is no one on the team more equipped to go out and get a bucket when shit is hitting the fan than Mr. Most Improved.
Back to Gibson. With 3:14 left the Pistons began to swarm, knowing Randle would be getting the ball in his sweet spots on the elbows. A play for Randle was broken up by intense switching until the ball ended up in Gibson’s hands on the perimeter. Casey was probably salivating, knowing his team had executed their defense to perfection, forcing the ball in the hands of the least offensively-gifted Knick on the floor, behind an arc he rarely launches from. Gibson, calm as ever, put the ball on the floor and charged with grace to the rim, pulling up and releasing a jumper which bounced around the rim until it went in. Knicks up nine. Casey called time.
The Knicks continued an 11-0 run with a nifty give-and-go from Randle to Burks downhill. Randle is anything but selfish. The guy loves to involve his teammates in winning. He’s quick to develop a two-man game with any guard who is willing. And Thibs knows the lineups which provide the best defense. The aforementioned one kept the Pistons scoreless for nearly five minutes, a stellar feat at that point in the game. Up 12, the Knicks could afford to go back to Gibson, who heat-checked himself with a three to cap off a 21 and 9 night. It would also be enough for Thibs to pull his starters, letting the bench kids get some burn against the Pistons starters, who refused to give up. As Gibson walked towards the bench with the lead in the bag, he did his trademark celebratory move, raising his hand to his head in the gesture of answering the phone. Knicks win 108-100. In Gibson, Thibs has a vet he’s been in the trenches with on three different teams. One he knows will answer the call every time, every game.