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Knicks 106, Wizards 102: “Grind them down”

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Grounded.

NBA: Washington Wizards at New York Knicks POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

I’m exhausted. Have been for weeks. Work has been wiping me out. I got my two Covid vaccinations, both of which made me mad tired for days; I keep mixing up words. It’s after 2:00 Friday morning and here I am, recapping. That’s the most I can muster. There’s no concept or creativity with this one. The best I have in me right now is simply getting it done.

That’s the same energy the Knicks brought to their 106-102 comeback win over the Washington Wizards last night, their second-biggest comeback this season. New York was tired and ragged much of the night. Their usual fluencies — defense plus the brilliance of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett — were muted. Lineups were mixed up — there’s Kevin Knox and Obi Toppin! Together! Not in the fourth quarter of a blowout! Simple concepts, e.g. make your 3s and your free throws, were slippery as sand. This was not a fun game to watch for most of the night. The best the Knicks had to offer — the most they could give — was to keep pushing and never quit, to hope that’d be enough to get it done against a lousy team. It was.

The Knicks were without Nerlens Noel, Derrick Rose and Reggie Bullock. For an early flurry the Wizards were led by Bradley Beal at his best, a dish-and-swish dervish maybe even more fun to watch off the ball and off the dribble than launching his sweet jumper. In the opening minutes he’d find Alex Len on a cutting dunk attempt that drew a foul and ahead of the field for an easy stuff.

The Knicks looked blasé. The Wiz looked blasted out of a cannon.

Two nights after shooting 58% in the first quarter and draining five 3s, New York shot 29% and missed all seven shots from distance in the opening frame. Former Knick Robin Lopez came in for the foul-plagued Len and couldn’t miss. Current Knick Barrett was all bricks and turnovers in what had to be his worst 13-minute stretch all season. The first half was all low points, lowlighted when the Knick defense fell asleep and left Raul Neto alone underneath for the basket and the foul, then fell asleep again when he missed the free throw but the ball bounced all the way back to him at the charity stripe, from where he promptly drove and dropped in another two points for the unconventional 4-point play. The Knicks called timeout, immediately after which they threw the ball away to Neto, who went in for the uncontested two.

It took over 17 minutes for the Knicks to make a 3-pointer, cutting the gap to single digits. Briefly.

Ahh, Russell Westbrook. As the Frankenstein monster was the modern Prometheus, Westbrook is a modern take on Wadsworth’s little girl with the curl: when he’s bad he’s very bad, and as he ages he’s bad more than he’s good. But this is still a future Hall of Famer who at 6’3” snagged 11 rebounds in the first half and nearly completed his 161st career triple-double. The Knicks have 89. Ever. Westbrook and Beal were clearly motivated to avenge Tuesday’s travesty. Up 15 at the half, it appeared they would have satisfaction.

Midway through the third, the Knicks were down 17 and had all the evidence needed to throw in the towel and relegate this game to “it happens; move on.” They’d missed 17 of 18 3s. The offense was more east-west than north-south. They couldn’t shoot, wouldn’t pass, were turning the ball over and missing too many free throws. Randle and RJ were a combined 6-of-28 shooting, including one stretch of 10 straight misses by Randle. This Barrett buzzer-beater at the end of the third was emblematic of their night to that point: even when something went right, it looked wrong.

If the sight of Obi Toppin getting meaningful fourth quarter minutes made you think Hell froze over, rest assured it’s still hella hot in Hades. Thibs is decidedly pre-Road to Damascus; the rookie was only out there because Randle hurt his thigh. But while the ex-Dayton Flyer yet again took a flyer on scoring, there are other ways to contribute and ends to contribute to.

The Toppin/RJ/Quickley/Alec Burks/Taj Gibson lineup pulled the Knicks back within striking distance while Randle recovered and Mitchell Robinson sat. Quickley’s sense set up Burks and Barrett for buckets.

The teams reached a gentleman’s agreement to forswear free throws, a dash of paprika reddening the pot luck. Everyone brought a little something. Toppin had a couple steals. Quickley assisted others and hit some big shots. Taj rebounded, scored and set enough productive screens to earn fingersnaps of begrudgingness from the hippest of Rudy Gobert-ians. And after a first half looking like Fredo Corleone, RJ spent the late-and-close in the role of Michael.

A Quickley 3 gave New York its first lead of the night. The Knicks closed the game on a 21-11 run. Randle closed out the competitive portion of the evening with a baseline turnaround reminiscent of Patrick Ewing and a drive and pull-up that echoed Carmelo Anthony.

Knicks win! Knicks win.

Notes:

  • RJ in the second half: 19 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals. Man I love his mental strength. He never stopped playing, even when he was off. So many of his points come at important points; so many are so difficult. Whenever this season ends I look forward to re-calculating my RJ/Randle ceiling.
  • Four straight games with 20+ points for Burks, most of them coming in the fourth. I have really grown to dig watching AB play this year. You know how most people look better when they smile but only a few are photogenic? Everyone looks better when their shot is falling, but Burks’ becomes photogenic when his is.
  • Taj Gibson’s Knicks Part 2 > Godfather 2. I don’t make the rules.
  • The Knicks had 10 more offensive rebounds and 11 more free throws than the Wizards. Their bench outscored Washington’s 55-19.
  • Per MSG: Randle is on pace for the second-highest increase in 3P% from one year to the next ever (minimum 200 3PAs). From 2004 to 2005 Joe Johnson went up 17%. Randle is up 15% this season. In a three-way tie for third: Kevin Durant, Steve Smith and Whack Mamba Arron Afflalo.
  • Maybe the Barretts and the Paytons have some Hatfield/McCoy backstory we don’t know about. It’s hard to think of any reason that’s not personal for why Elf refuses to feed RJ when he’s ahead of the field or an option in transition.
  • Something about Rui Hachimura reminds me of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Anyone else see it? Anyone know what I mean?
  • Running an in-game ad with 19 seconds left in a close game while free throws are happening? If we’re BDSMing we at least deserve dinner and dressing up beforehand. NO ONE WANTS ADS OVER DRAMA! I shouldn’t need to say this out loud.
  • With Beal at the line for big free throws Mike Breen busted out the perfectly-timed jinx, mentioning he hadn’t missed in seven attempts. Eight missed. Nine did, too, I think.

Quoth foiegrastyle: “Grind them down...” The Knicks held the Wizards to 42 second-half points, scoring 39 of their own in the fourth quarter alone. Better to be the gravity than “What’s the matter with the matter?” This was the last game with Washington this year; New York swept the season series. Next game is Saturday at Milwaukee. Very different atmosphere. We’ll see how the Knicks adapt.