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Knicks 116, Pelicans 106: “FOOOOOOOOUR!”

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Wins are nice.

New York Knicks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The last time the Knicks won four in a row, many of us had never heard of Covid 1-18, much less 19. In some ways that time is ancient history, but it’s important to remember it isn’t, lest we lose ourselves to our own revision. Often what hasn’t changed is the canvas through which we can see how much has.

Before last night’s 116-106 win in New Orleans, the last time the Knicks won four straight was February 8, 2020, in Detroit. That night, as was the case last night, no Knick scored more points than Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton scored double-figures, RJ Barrett struggled from the field, the starting center was Taj Gibson. and two bench players scored double-figures. Those are your sames. Your diffs: that night the team’s co-leading scorer was Wayne Ellington, Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina combined for six points and two assists in 32 minutes, and the win saw the Knicks’ record climb to 17-36. Much has changed.

Gibson started in place of Nerlens Noel, who was out with a sore ankle. The Pelicans opened with their center, Steven Adams, guarding Randle. It was clear Adams did not want to come out and guard Randle behind the arc. It was clear Julius saw this and took advantage, drilling three 3-pointers in the first five minutes.

New Orleans is the worst team in the league defending the longball, which is pretty much where this game was decided: New York outscored them from deep 51-18 and hit 52% from range versus 21% for the Pels. The Knicks’ main concern was dealing with Zion Williamson, which led to an unusual bit of substitution mirroring in the early going. Stan Van Gundy pulled Zion about midway through the first, after which Tom Thibodeau — who normally only pulls Randle from games if the Oracle at Delphi threatens him — sat Randle. Obi Toppin’s head must have been spinning from getting into a game that early. But like two minutes later Zion was back, and thus Randle returned. They say guarding a superstar is a team effort. Exhibit A:

The bench checked in and turned a tie game after one into a double-digit Knicks lead within minutes. Derrick Rose ended a pretty passing sequence with a lovely touch pass to Norvel Pelle for his first field goal as a Knick, then Alec Burks and Immanueal Quickley made consecutive 3s. IQ’s came from (insert a Louisiana locale miles away from New Orleans joke here):

Zion and Adams were hitting the offensive glass, keying a 14-4 Pelicans run to pull them within one.

The Knicks went into the half up one, thanks in part to OAPAAP Payton’s lovely tip-in of a Reggie Bullock missed 3.

It was a quick first half, only taking 45 minutes thanks to the teams combining for only nine fouls and seven turnovers. In the third New Orleans continued to boss the interior, nearly doubling the Knicks in paint points. The Knicks were content to keep bombing away.

In one of the unlikeliest paragraphs I have ever written, the game began to turn thanks to the offensive explosion of James Johnson. JJ scored three straight buckets off the bench, then drove and dished to Brandon Ingram in the corner, who Gibson fouled on a 3-pointer. After Ingram made all three free throws, the Knicks were down five. Would the Knicks respond? Assuming you didn’t begin this recap with this paragraph, you know they did.

Rose provided the final winning burst with a six-point flurry late in the third. His shooting numbers on the night don’t look great, but it seemed like every basket he made was important, and often a thing of beauty.

If it’s the fourth quarter then you know what that means. It’s Alec Burks Time. AB opened the frame with a three-point play and a 3-pointer to push the lead to nine. He scored 14 in the quarter. If all he’s going to cost in free agency is the mid-level exception, the Knicks might as well write that check now.

As always with this team, the defense is the difference-maker. The Knicks held the Pelicans without a field goal for the first five minutes of the final frame. They say defense is just effort and will, that there’s no glory in it. But sometimes exerting one’s will is a sight to behold.

I think Zion sat most of the fourth — my notes say he didn’t check in until there were just four minutes remaining, but my sense of reality struggles to make sense of that reality. Williamson scored over Randle to make it a six-point game, as did an Ingram three-point play late in the action. But the Knicks were never in danger; when they broke the Pels’ last-minute press and Randle found Taj for the dunk, the contest was decided.

And that’s that. And there’s nothing [they] could do about it.

Notes

  • 32 for Randle two nights after he netted 34 against the Lakers. Those are his first back-to-back 30 pieces this season. After a dip in form and energy in the Boston and Brooklyn games, he appears to be back to his All-Star self.
  • Zion. Mein Gott. His second- and third-jumps are Rodman-esque. NBA evolution fascinates me. LeBron James is like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson in the body of Karl Malone. I didn’t know what could advance on that. I’m not saying Zion > LBJ, but he’s Charles Barkley in the body of a mini-Shaq, to coin an oxymoron.
  • An impressive, even younger lefty than Zion:
  • I’m not one to toot my own tweet, but this is kind of a wild stat.
  • With the win the Knicks improved to 14-23 when they allow 100+ points. It’s pro’ly sexier to say “They’re 15-4 when they don’t,” but that doesn’t apply here.
  • Some places just aren’t the same without a packed house — Anfield, Conseco Fieldhouse, etc. Some come close: MSG has been louder with 2000 fans than some arenas are when they’re packed. Some are the same in that there’s just no vibe at all. The Smoothie King Center is such a place.
  • Undrafted rookie Naji Marshall with an impressive showing: 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists. ‘Cuz the Pels don’t already have a ton of young talent.
  • MSG trivia: Zion is on pace to average 25+ points a game while shooting over 60%. Who is the only other player to do that? I figured Wilt Chamberlain, as did Walt Frazier and apparently much of the MSG broadcast crew. But it’s not. The two years Wilt shot over 60% — I figured he did so way more than two times — he averaged 21 and 13 points. So who’s the answer?
  • This arena will always bring to mind the Jarrett Jack Game, a.k.a the night Anthony Davis murdered Ron Baker’s Face.
  • Teresa Witherspoon, New York Liberty legend, is an assistant coach with the Pelicans. If you were an old school WNBA fan like me, her shot to deny the Houston Comets a title and force a decisive final game in 1999 is as good as it gets.
  • James Johnson is undefeated in 28 mixed martial arts and kickboxing competitions. His father was a seven-time world champion in kickboxing and his mother won five national titles. Is there any NBA player ever you’d rather fight Johnson than?
  • Clyde on Ingram: “Six-foot-eight like [Kevin] Durant, his idol.” LOL never change, Clyde.
  • Trivia answer: Kevin McHale put up 26.1 points on 6o% shooting in 1987.

Quoth normanhathaway: “FOOOOOOOOUR!” Feels good, don’t it? Know what’d be better? FIIIIIIIIVE! The Knicks have a shot at their first five-game winning streak since 2014 when they visit Dallas tomorrow. Take however good you feel about this win and increase that by 25%. Hope you’re feeling like that in 36 hours.