The fans at Madison Square Garden weren’t sure if they believed it. Mitchell Robinson was participating in shoot-around and eligible for action, but no one knew if he would actually play.
The crowd erupted with joy when the talented 7-footer checked in at 9:05. He had not suited up for the Knicks since March 27, 2021. His absence was felt most acutely in a disappointing playoff series with Atlanta. The fans wanted him back; the Knicks needed him back.
But, if the packed house thought that was exciting, they had no idea what Julius Randle had in store for them.
Less than a week ago, the Knicks throttled Washington 117-99. As expected, the Wizards wanted to settle the score. They proved it from the jump.
Kyle Kuzma started things with a quick 25-foot three-point jumper. RJ Barrett answered with a quick, three-point counterpunch. But, then Spencer Dinwiddie drained a wide open shot from deep. Message received. These Wizards weren’t going to roll over tonight as they did last Saturday.
RJ threw a bad pass for a turnover, but Randle showed more patience on the next possession. He passed up one shot to wait for a better option, then sank what has become the classic Randle three ball. Is it too early to hang his number from the rafters?
Unfortunately, Randle’s teammates seemed stuck in the mud. Fournier grabbed a nice defensive rebound, but blew a layup at the other end. After Dinwiddie sank a corner three, Kemba Walker tried to force one and whiffed. Taj Gibson fouled Daniel Gafford and would be in foul trouble all night.
The 6′ 10″ Gafford was coming off a 14 point, 17 rebound performance against the Toronto Raptors. He’s no slouch defender. Remember that when we reach the end of the game.
As Gafford approached the free throw line, the crowd began to cheer, crescendoing to a roar, because Mitchell Robinson was subbing in for Taj. This was the cajun’s first appearance in seven months. Everyone wanted to see how he would play. Would he be rusty?
His presence was felt immediately. After Barrett knocked down a sweet corner three in front of the Knicks bench, the Wizards regained the ball and were reluctant to drive the lane toward Mitch. Kuzma, in particular, lost his nerve around the rim. Then, while Daniel Gafford was looking to score and distracted by Robinson, Barrett slapped the ball away from behind.
Notably, Fournier played tighter defense than he did against the Pistons on Wednesday. His arms were up and busy while hassling shooters, and drew a nice early charge from Beal. Beal made up for the embarrassment, however, with a gorgeous spinning drive to the hoop. The Wizards were up 13-8. Coach Thibodeau needed a time out to regroup his squad.
After the break, Kemba stepped out of bounds for a turnover. Thibs looked nauseous.
The NY squad had a few moments of fluid ball movement. For much of the first half, however, they were out-of-sync. Let’s hope they work out their offensive kinks before starting the season on Wednesday against the tougher Boston Celtics.
To be fair, Robinson provided both highs and not-so-highs. A ref nabbed him for a moving screen on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. But then Mitch went strong for an offensive rebound on the next possession. BUT, then he missed the put-back and landed on his back. The previous iteration of Mitch was never confused with a ballerina, but his play tonight did lack more grace than usual. No reason to panic—he’ll keep honing his game with repetition and time.
Next, Aaron Holiday hit both a three and a strong, driving layup. Wizards, 18-8. Around this point, the Knicks had shot 3-16 and missed 10 straight. Thibs, grinding his teeth to powder, called his second time out in less than two minutes.
Subbing for Kemba and Evan, Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley entered with hopes of sparking the offense. Quickley continued to be a tad erratic, but D-Rose is steady as it goes.
Holiday hit a teardrop, and then Robinson, who got hung up on a Montrezl Harrell screen, was slow to close out a Beal three-pointer. Rose answered with a nice floater. The game was really a back-and-forth affair.
Robinson proved he still has great hops. He grabbed a strong defensive board, then thrilled the Garden with a slam at the opposite end of the floor.
Quentin Grimes, 25th pick in this year’s draft, subbed for Barrett with 2:35 left in Q1. To see Grimes so early in the game was a surprise. He’s usually relegated to the final minutes, once the contest is decided. The decision would pay dividends for Coach Thibs.
At 1:25, Dinwiddie fouled Derrick on a layup for a three-point play. Taj returned to action. Wizards, 25-15.
Open for a shot, Grimes caught a nice pass but traveled while trying to line up a three. It was one of his few mistakes on the night. He grabbed a strong rebound to end the quarter, with Wiz ahead 26-15.
The numbers were ugly heading into Q2. Washington had shot 9-21 (42.9%) from the field, 5-11 from three (45.5%). New York had shot 6-24 (25%) from the field and was a woeful 2-12 from deep (16.7%)
To start Q2, a quick Kuzma foul put Taj on the line, which narrowed the score to 26-17. This preseason, Gibson has been a reliable scorer. Tonight, the ref’s whistle would be his biggest nemesis.
Surprisingly still in the game, Grimes grabbed another defensive rebound, but Quickley squandered the opportunity, bricking a three-ball off a screen. A Grimes foul put Dinwiddie on the line for two more points, then Derrick countered with a long two. The Bockers still seemed sluggish, and Mitchell’s return was really the highlight at this point.
When Gibson committed a loose ball foul, Big Mitch trotted in from the bench to another ovation. One can only hope that when negotiating his contract, he takes into account the vociferous love that Knicks fans feel for him.
Kuzma dunked. Gafford alley ooped. The Wiz were up 31-19.
A nice corner three by Grimes electrified the arena. Coach Wes Unseld, Jr. called a time out to diffuse the momentum. Quentin would be deterred, however, and promptly busted up the Wizards’ set play, leading to a Davis Bertans turnover. Knicks ball.
Derrick nailed a ten-foot jumper, then added an alley oop to Obi Toppin. Quickley added a teardrop, closing the lead to 36-28.
The Wizards fought to keep their advantage, but the Knicks were working hard. On one busy sequence, Robinson grabbed a big offensive rebound off a Rose miss, and then Obi grabbed the board on a Grimes miss.
Finally, Quickley buried a long three to pull the Knicks within seven. The misses never affect the youngster’s confidence. A play or two later, Quickley hit Robinson with a thrilling lob. He’s not a point guard yet, but smart, skillful passes like those are encouraging.
Raul Neto, who would lead the Wizards with 25 points, skirted around Toppin under the basket for tricky layup. Wiz 42-33.
For an intriguing moment, Kemba and Rose shared the floor. Just as I began to wonder what chemistry Rose and Walker would have, Thibs subbed Barrett in for Derrick. Clearly a clerical error had occurred.
Randle continued his steady play with an 18-footer on the baseline that cut the lead to nine. Walker added a 24-foot three off a Gibson screen, and then a two-pointer from the top of the key.
The teams matched each other’s successes and failures. Neto answered Walker’s production with a deep ball of his own, then Deni Avdija added another. Barrett drove for tough layup, then Avdija hit Neto for one. Thibs called time out with the score at 54-42.
After the breather, Gafford banked an 18-foot jumper, but then negated that by goaltending a Randle layup. Walker drove into the paint against Holiday, sank the layup, and was fouled. His three-point play to bring NY within 12.
There were defensive lapses all around tonight. During the next sequence, the lane parted like the red sea for Aaron Holiday, who cruised down the middle. Robinson hacked him at the last minute. Following that, Kuzma committed a silly foul on Walker with 5.7 seconds left. Kemba made both free throws, and the Knicks closed out the sloppy half with a 7-1 run.
They entered intermission down 60-49.
Bradley Beal didn’t return to the court due to a right knee contusion. Advantage: Knicks.
NY carried their choppy play over into Q3. Randle bricked on the first possession, and Kuzma hit a three on a Holiday assist. Kemba made a 22-foot jumper, and Randle, a layup. Gafford flashed a baby-hook. 65-53.
Holiday had been playing well, but had to sit with four fouls. Kemba air-balled a three, and Taj fouled Dinwiddie to the tune of two free throws. Finishing the preseason undefeated began to feel highly unlikely.
Fournier scored from deep and then, after a Gibson steal, Evan threw it ahead to assist Barrett on layup. This was an encouraging sequence for Fournier, who’s been a tad flat offensively. Almost on cue, he was indecisive on the next possession and made a bad pass. As Walt Frazier implored him during the telecast, Evan has to shoot when he’s open. Just kinks, I hope.
Neto continued to be a dynamo for Washington. He hit back to back shots, bringing the score to 71-58. Thibs growled for a timeout at 7:19.
Out of the time out, the Knicks ran a play for a Walker three-point attempt. He missed it. Next, Taj committed his fifth foul, which brought Robinson back into the game.
Neto hit a jumper. Fournier sank a sweet runner for two. Neto then picked off a Randle pass and passed the ball ahead to KCP for a layup. Barrett responded with an athletic, driving score, but then Neto put in another layup. The Brazilian seemed to meet little resistance whether driving the lane or shooting from the field.
Raul fouled Randle, who put in both shots from the charity stripe. Fournier then hit a much needed three to bring the score to 81-67. Wes Unseld, Jr. called a time out to slow the Knicks’ roll.
Sloppiness continued for both teams after the time out. Robinson stood tough against Harrell. His added body weight does match him more favorably with the Wizards large PF. But Robinson, who was bedeviled by the foul bug when he first joined the league, hacked Harrell and the Wizard canned both free throws.
Barrett made a three pointer, and the Knicks got a defensive stop at the other end. Could a come back be in the cards? Rose contributed another three. NY had chipped the lead to 83-73. Unseld used another timeout.
Both teams came back bricking. Rookie Corey Kispert made a three. Rose drove with a graceful, twisting layup. But, then Harrell dunked, and Kuzma picked up a loose ball between two Knicks and dropped in a finger roll. The quarter ended, mercifully, 90-75. It seemed the Knicks might never get any closer.
In Q4, Grimes continued to demonstrate great energy, despite a few rookie moments. As we saw with Obi Toppin, the adjustment to pro ball can take time. Frankly, Grimes looks better prepared for NBA play than Toppin did last preseason. This bodes well for his future in NY.
Taj Gibson fouled out at the 11 minute mark. Montrezl was a handful for our iron man. Thibs must have truly soured on Jericho Sims, because even his shadow wasn’t allowed to touch the floor. Sure, we loved seeing Robinson again, but was it wise to play him for so many minutes?
“Conditioning is my biggest goal right now,” said Robinson after the game. He was visibly tired down the stretch.
The back and forth play continued. The omnipresent Harrell hit a couple free throws. Rose made a 16-foot jumper. Grimes picked off a Kuzma pass and took off, but was fouled by Harrell, foiling any attempt at a break-away slam.
Grimes next snuck a pass beneath the rim and around a defender to give Robinson a thunderous jam. The assist was beautiful. Gotta love Quentin’s skill set.
When Derrick hit a 25-footer, Unseld called another time out. 93-82.
Rose’s jumper from the 15-17 feet range is automatic. He canned one to make the score 95-84.
While contesting an out-of-bounds call, Thibs collected his first technical of the season. No one on the Knicks cared that this was an exhibition game. NY comes to win, every time.
Robinson continued his whirlwind play. He turned the ball over, then stole it back, and whizzed it ahead to Barrett, who missed a layup that Obi grabbed for a dunk. The sequence was messy, but damn fun to watch.
Next, Big Mitch poked the ball away from Holiday. When all of his limbs are working, Mitchell’s a human octopus. You could see he was gassed, though, laboring to catch up with the herd as they ran end to end.
When KCP hit a three to stretch the score to 99-86 with 6:53 remaining, Thibs called a time out.
Personal digression: During the time out, the camera caught the same kid who was dancing at Wednesday’s game. It’s not often that I feel bitter jealousy toward eight-year olds.
At this point, I expected to see either Sims (Jericho) or Simms (Aamir) to sub in after the break. Play resumed with Randle and Toppin splitting the PF/C duties. Thibs, so often accused of being inflexible, was finally running the small ball lineup that some fans have clamored for.
Toppin made a silly foul on Gafford, resulting in 1 of 2 free throws. On the other end, Advija lost his cool after fouling Randle and got a technical foul. Randle canned all three threes with ease.
Like Rose with his mid-range jumpers, Randle looks almost automatic at the line. Just as guaranteed when he’s at the line: MVP chants from the home crowd. The calls were LOUD tonight, and the fanatical affection would be reward.
The crowd really came to life when Rose fed Toppin for a corner three. Running back on defense, Toppin exchanged a couple winks with Floyd Mayweather, sitting courtside.
Talent respects talent. I’m loving Toppin’s confidence.
STILL IN THE GAME, Grimes fouled Neto. Raul made his two shots. Then Advija fouled Randle, who dropped one. The Knicks were within nine, 102-93.
Grimes missed a three, but Barrett—who was clutch in Wednesday’s game against the Pistons—buried a three to the crowd’s delight. But, Kispert answered with a dagger three. Derrick raced down the floor for an easy layup. Neto followed with a jumper. It seemed the score would never get any closer than nine points.
Then Grimes intercepted a bad pass that he dished to Rose, who connected with Toppin for a clumsy score at the hoop. Clumsy, yet it counted.
Uncharacteristically, Toppin missed another dunk, but Grimes snagged the offensive board. The rook was ALL OVER this game, and truly impressed in his extended minutes. With his team needing a big play, Quentin dished to Rose for a three.
The Wizards needed a time out. The score was now only 108-103.
Play resumed, and Toppin stole the ball. Once again, Grimes delivered, nailing a catch-and-shoot three from right in front of the Wizards bench.
Neto followed with a jumper, but Randle came back with a 25-foot three. The Knicks were now down 110-109.
Gone are the days of fake comebacks at the Garden. This team is a grinder. With 48 seconds left, Gafford fouled Randle. Julius gave us the lead with two of those surefire free throws. Like butter. Knicks up, 111-110.
The chants of MVP shook the roof.
The game wasn’t over, though. Toppin stuffed Gafford’s attempt at a layup, and Grimes swept the glass. The Knicks raced down the floor, where Kispert hit Rose for a foul. Reliable Derrick sank both free throws.
In an ecstatic moment, Avdija drove to the hoop against Barrett. Even after playing 33+ minutes, RJ remained poised and professional. He blocked Avdija cleanly, and the Knicks regained possession.
At the end of this one, the Garden was on its feet and impossibly loud. The Wizards could barely hear themselves in the huddle. Then, with 15 seconds left, the 15th selection in the 2021 draft Corey Kispert caught the inbounds and drained a three. Score tied: 113-113.
Thibs promptly called for time. With 15 on the clock, whose number would he call for the final shot?
There was never any question.
Thibs sent Randle, Obi, Rose, Barrett, and Grimes (!) onto the floor for the final possession.
Julius brought the ball up the court with Gafford pressuring him. Randle took his time. He almost played it too cool, fumbling the ball slightly on a between-the-legs dribble. As precious seconds ticked off the clock, Jules shimmied, jabbed, stepped back . . . and sank that effing shot.
A 21-footer as the clock expired, capping an unbelievable come from behind victory.
The entire bench leaped upon their All-Star, their Mr. Big Shot.
If you don’t believe these Knicks are the most fun NBA team to watch, I’d like to know what else you’re watching.
“Finding a way to win in the end is the most important thing,” said Thibs in his postgame presser. “You find a group that’s working well and let them go.”
Tonight, that group included rookie Quentin Grimes, playing his first big minutes; Toppin, whose defense was considered such a liability that he fell to number eight in his draft class; and Barrett, just starting year three of his NBA career at age 21 and already banging on the door for All-Star consideration.
And, of course, you give the ball to Julius Randle. All-Star, 2nd-Team All-NBA, and last season’s MIP. Mr. Big Shot. He finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 assists. Just another day at the office.
Binghamton, NY is a long way from NYC, but you could hear my house celebrating all the way to Broadway. Preseason might not count as anything more than glorified practice, but these Knicks play to win whenever, wherever. This felt like a playoff game. I can’t wait for Wednesday. Bring on the Celtics. Bring on the league.
- After the game, Thibs praised the rookie Grimes. “Quentin .. . . gives us another wing defender who is really good.” No kidding, coach. Poise, energy, quick hands on defense, and a couple big shots. This game may have been remembered as Q’s coming out party, if not for Mitch and Julius dominating the narrative. The 6’ 4”, 21-year old played 21 minutes with 6 points, 6 rebounds, two assists, and two steals. He was +16.
The giddy surprise I felt when Quickley broke out the floater early last season was matched tonight while watching Quentin Grimes. Can’t wait to see more.
- Show RJ some more love. In 34 minutes, he notched 18 points and six rebounds on 7-14 FG and 4-6 3PT. No assists, but he made two big blocks. The fact that he was on the floor for the final play shows how much more confidence Thibs has in the 21-year old.
- Wizards: Rui Hachimura was kept out for the game. That was disappointing, because I was looking forward to seeing the big man back in action.
- Knicks: Nerlens Noel, C, remained out with knee/hamstring soreness. Alec Burks, SG, also sat out for rest.
- The Knicks keep shooting those threes, as promised. They ended the night 15-42 for 35.7%
- Thibs nicknamed Robinson “Flex” due to his 40 pound increase of muscle. “I didn’t want to get pushed around like I did last year a little bit,” said Robinson. After watching him hold his own against Harrell tonight, it’s safe to say Mitch will be doing the pushing around this year.
Goodnight, New York. Go Knicks!