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Knicks 114, Pistons 104: “Nice bounce back, much better energy”

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A solid win heading into the All-Star break.

Detroit Pistons v New York Knicks
All-Star.
Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Coming off a lethargic 26-point blowout loss Tuesday in San Antonio, the Knicks decisively defeated the injury-plagued Detroit Pistons Thursday night, improving New York’s record to over .500 heading into the All-Star break for the first time in eight years.

On Tuesday against the Spurs, the Knicks looked like they were ready to start their week off early, but Tom Thibodeau isn’t one for accepting lackluster efforts. New York had Elfrid Payton back and in the starting lineup, but no Derrick Rose (out for health and safety protocol). Taj Gibson remains out after recently spraining his ankle, leaving the Knicks light at the center position.

The Pistons, meanwhile, are last in the East and second worst in the NBA. They were without their two of their top scorers (Jerami Grant and Josh Jackson). The Knicks couldn’t afford to let this one slip away. Especially with a difficult second half of the season coming up.

With the victory, the Knicks are now 19-18 at the midway point of the 2020-21 season, good for fifth place in the Eastern Conference and only half a game back from the fourth place Boston Celtics. They are 8-3 in their last 11, are led by a bonafide All-Star in Julius Randle, and employ a Coach of the Year candidate in Thibs.

The outcome of the contest did come into question multiple times throughout the night, although truth be told the Knicks took control from the very beginning and mostly kept Detroit at bay. RJ Barrett, who entered the evening averaging 18 points and 4 rebounds on 55% shooting over the last four games, was determined to keep up the good work.

He had three assists in the first few minutes, including a couple of pretty passes to Payton. By the time Randle got his first bucket about halfway through the period, forcing Dwane Casey to call timeout, the Knicks were 6-8 from the floor and up 14-8.

Randle, coming off one of his poorer efforts this season against the Spurs (14 points on 6-16 shooting, 11 rebounds and 5 assists), ripped off a remarkable first quarter to get himself back on track. He posted 10 points on 4-6 from the field, plus 4 boards and 1 assist. He was aided by Elf, who aggressively drove to the rim all night and poured in 8 first quarter points, as well as RJ, who had 6 points and 3 assists in the first.

At one point, the Pistons hit six consecutive shots to get within one, and soon it was 26-26. But Alec Burks canned a bucket with two minutes left in the period to make it 28-26, followed by a Frank Ntilikina three pointer, assisted with love by Randle, to put the Knicks back up six.

The beginning of the second quarter featured perhaps the finest moment in franchise history since Walt Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed brought home the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy almost five decades ago. Frank sank back to back threes, receiving what Clyde called a “fortuitous” bounce on one and getting fouled on the next. The Pistons, being party poopers, challenged the foul call, and won. The three counted, but Frank would not get that free throw.

The Knicks maintained an advantage for the next few minutes, thanks to Randle, who had himself another 8 points, 6 boards and 1 assist in the second quarter to notch a double double by halftime (18 points and 10 boards). Not to mention Barrett, who finished the half with 10 points, 3 boards and 3 dimes. Near the end of the second the Knicks went on an 11-0 run that featured the following nifty slam from RJ, and at the break New York led by 13, 59-46.

Payton opened the second half draining a corner three, having been left wide open by none other than Dennis Smith Jr. But the Pistons answered with a couple three-pointers of their own, and as previously described, it felt like the Knicks still had control but the possibility remained that they could suddenly and spectacularly falter.

Collectively, however, the Knicks kept it together, with seven ‘Bockers getting on the board in the third period, led by 7 points apiece from Elf and Reggie Bullock and 5 each from Randle and Burks.

Eventually, it was 77-66 Knicks, which is just a cool-looking score. Then it was 82-66. Sighs of relief could be heard throughout the New York metropolitan area. Those sighs were premature, even if Randle’s last second layup to end the period put the Knicks up by 19.

The bench failed to score for the first few minutes of the fourth, while the Pistons put up five straight points to bring the game within 14. Thibs, upset, called timeout and brought Randle and the rest of the starters back in to try and right the ship.

Side note: The yank of Frank, who sank three threes in nine first half minutes while playing his usual stingy defense, was strange. But Thibs was getting antsy that the Knicks might never score again. Ntilikina was a casualty of overall poor performance from the bench unit.

Thibodeau’s move paid off, as the starters maintained a roughly 10-point lead for most of the rest of the quarter. Detroit never gave up, but New York never gave in.

In the final minute, the crowd chanted for Thibs to put in Theo Pinson, but he, like his team in the game, refused to give in. When all was said and done, the Knicks were victorious, 114-104. They beat a team they should beat, and did so in a mostly convincing manner.

Notes:

> Thursday was Obi Toppin’s 23rd birthday. Happy birthday, Obi! Toppin had a couple crafty layups against the Pistons, but he’ll need to dunk it with authority on Sunday if he wants to have a chance to win the dunk contest. Go Obi!

> The win marks the 10th time the Knicks have beaten an opponent by 10 or more this season; they did that only seven times in 66 games last year and four times in a standard 2018-19 season that featured 82 total games.

> Nerlens Noel once again deserves his own bullet point. He had 12 points, 11 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocks. After one of those blocks, he did the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag.

> RJ deserves a bullet point too, but after this, no more free bullet points! Barrett had 21 points 9-13 shooting), 4 boards and 5 assists. The 5 assists tied his season high.

> If you haven’t already, go read Julius Randle’s piece on the Player’s Tribune. He’s down to stay in New York, and New York should be down to keep him.

> The next Knicks game will be played on March 11 against the Milwaukee Bucks, exactly one year to the day from when the Knicks played their final game last season, against the Atlanta Hawks, a win.

Herbert Pollack was absolutely spot on in the comments when expressing the following about tonight’s Knicks: “nice bounce back, much better energy.”

Much better energy indeed, Herbert. Have a nice All-Star break everyone. The second half of the season might be tough, but the Knicks are in the hunt.