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Knicks 116, Rockets 103: “Give the keys to Deuce”

The Knicks went young, beating the Rockets at their own game.

New York Knicks v Houston Rockets Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Not long after halftime of last night’s New York Knicks game in Houston, a 17-point lead had evaporated. The game seemed a microcosm of the season: a hot Knicks’ start followed by a long, steady drop-off. By the time New York’s 116-103 win was secure, hope sprung that the victory could be a microcosm for better days ahead, for the season, like the game, to see New York hit a rough patch, look inward, fight back and overcome. No better time than the present to get on a winning streak, something the Knicks haven’t done since before Halloween.

Despite a 39-point first quarter and a 17-point first half lead, Houston had pulled even in the third on a Garrison Mathews 3, and a disturbing trend re-emerged. Last season, the Knicks played 72 games; in 39% of them, either four or all five starters failed to register a positive plus/minus. This year that number’s 59%. As good as the bench is, the Knicks aren’t going anywhere if the starters don’t turn things around. Last night four starters failed to record a positive rating. One of them was Evan Fournier, who passed my eye test putting up 23 in his highest-scoring game since before Thanksgiving.

The easygoing early going gave way to ch ch ch choppy play and it was anybody’s game with the fourth quarter looming. Derrick Rose was lost for the night with a sore ankle. The home team was — is — a talented young group who’d rebounded from a 1-16 start to win eight of their last 10. The non-Fournier starters shot 26% from the field. The Knicks were shorthanded with Kevin Knox joining RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin and Quentin Grimes out with Covid. If there are infinite universes, more than a few feature the Knicks losing this game in a late heartbreaker and ringing in the holidays with a lump-of-coal vibe.

In this universe, the Knicks turned to a lineup featuring Mitchell Robinson, Taj Gibson, Immanuel Quickley and Miles McBride, a lineup that turned up the defense in turning what had been neck-and-neck into the visitors wiping the deck with the homewrecked Houstonians. Gibson is not generally cast in the role of stretch 4, but there is more space in “not generally,” Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy. With the fourth looming ever nearer, Taj gave the Knicks breathing room. If breath is life, here was a bolt of breath.

That was Gibson’s only 3, but boy did he do a lot on both ends to help the Knicks pull away. He was forcing turnovers, leading the defensive charge and commanding enough attention down low to leave Robinson free to be Mitch.

Deuce McBride could fly back to his home planet right now and he’d be an all-time Knick folk hero, just for the cool name and The Deuce McBride Game, a.k.a. this game. He came in having played 33 minutes all year. He finished the night with 36 minutes (including the entire second half), 15 points, nine assists, four steals, a pair of 3s and a partridge in a pear tree. McBride was the hot knife and the butter, terrorizing the passing lanes, bringing much-needed flavor to the offense as a point guard who could score at the rim and off the bounce.

And then there’s the defense. To say McBride defends for 94 feet is to sell him short. What’s the area of a rectangle? Is it length times width? It’s after 2 in the morning; I’m going with length times width. That means the area of an NBA court is 4700 square feet. McBride defends for 4700 square feet.

There’s a lotta numbers in the last two paragraphs. Put ‘em all together and whaddya got? The seeming inevitability that the Knicks, sooner than later, need to make the kind of trade where more people go out than come back. When you’re only a third of the way into the season and you already consider a slight regression from last season the best-case scenario, you have got to play McBride and Quentin Grimes.

There’s a chasm of difference between being a .500 team and a .500 team with upside. McBride will struggle, but he already brings something no one else on the team does. It’s the I.Q. in getting IQ the ball as quickly as he does here. Josh Christopher has to close out kinda hard, so when Quickley drives at him and his forward momentum, the only counter Christopher has is to reverse and use his 6’9” wingspan to recover before Quickley passes him. McBride wasting no motion getting IQ the ball is the butterfly flapping its wings. Quickley going into a stepback sidestep 3-pointer was the hurricane. Christopher couldn’t reach to contest. Swish.

McBride’s smarts shone through in pushing the fourth quarter lead to double digits. After Alec Burks inbounded to Deuce, he took one dribble, drew two defenders, then whipped it underneath to Mitch for the dunk and-one.

That Quickley 3 from the prior clip? ‘Twas no anomaly. Quickley buried a career-high seven dingers, five of them in a Ruthian fourth quarter that saw the smallest man on the floor strike the decisive blows. This was Reggie Jackson in the 1977 World Series, the night he followed a walk in his first at-bat with a home run on the next pitch he saw, then a home run on the next pitch he saw, then a home run on the next pitch he saw. Quickley led the Knicks with 24 on 7-of-10 from distance. He didn’t take a lotta cuts, but when he did he did damage.

Robinson scored a season-high 17 in one of his best games of the campaign. IQ brought efficient destruction to the perimeter; Mitch did the same on the interior, not only in his efficiency scoring (8-of-8 shooting) but the other things one does at the rim, i.e. rebounding (nine, including six on the offensive glass) and protecting (three blocked shots). He had 13 points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter alone. In small samples, two-man lineups featuring Robinson and either Taj or Obi have blown opponents out of the water. Mitch and Randle are the Knicks’ fourth-most frequent pairing this season but have a -11.1 rating. May be worth looking into splitting those two up more, or staggering their minutes so they’re not together as much.

The grinches among us will say this win means nothing, that the Knicks didn’t pull away from the league’s fifth-worst team until the fourth, which is just, like, uh, your opinion, man. It’s just as fair to say the Knicks are a losing team looking from the outside in on the play-in seeds, so a win is a win is a win. Certainly more fun to view it that way.

Notes

  • Watching the amount of energy McBride expends playing defense full-court, I literally experience sparks of something more relief than joy just due to not having to do what he’s doing. Watching him come within a whisker of multiple eight-sound violations (a couple of which I thought he got away with) sparked anxiety.
  • Randle and Fournier combined for 44 points on 30 shot attempts. The other three starters had nine on 13.
  • The Mitch/Taj pairing appeared in both halves and appeared to be a positive. Maybe we see more of that going forward?
  • This Christopher sequence was just so cool. You get a steal in a pickup game and go fullcourt against multiple defenders and score pretty easily, you feel good about yourself. You know how good it must feel to do that at the NBA level? Like that just had to feel soooo good.
  • Daniel Theis as a future Knick backup center always makes sense to me. Particularly if the Knicks ever pursue one who can shoot — or at least will shoot.
  • If you’re old enough to remember the Rockets back in the day when they wore these pinstripe jerseys, who comes to mind for you? I get Cuttino Mobley, Mario Elie, Old Hakeem, Old Charles Barkley and, for whatever reason, Walt Williams, a.k.a. The Wizard (though he never played for the Wizards).
  • This kid in the crowd had on a #26 Knicks jersey and I just could not for the life of me think of who that was. I eventually gave in and peeked — see if you can remember without looking.
  • I’m in my eighth year recapping. I want to keep trying to give you something creative or enjoyable in these pieces. I don’t want to be predictable or boring. If you have any suggestions or critiques you care to offer, you can email matthew.miranda.13@gmail.com or DM me on Twitter @MMiranda613. It means a lot to me that I get to share my Knick neurosis with y’all sickos. Love you.

Quoth knickotime: “Give the keys to Deuce.” Will Tom Thibodeau continue to play McBride, Grimes and even Kevin Knox as the Barretts and Toppins of the world return to action post-Covid? We’ll have to wait and see. Next game is Saturday at Boston. Commence waiting.