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Knicks 110, Clippers 102: “Definitely a needed win”

RJ and Randle led the way.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Knicks had lost three straight coming into Sunday’s matinee matchup against the Clippers and needed desperately to get back into the win column. They did just that, handling the Clips, 110-102. With the Knicks now a few games into the second half of the season, they need every win they can get, especially at home against teams they should be beating. The Clippers have done an admirable job of hovering around .500 even without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George thanks to a balanced attack and an above average defense (sixth in defensive rating coming in to the game). That being said, the Knicks were favored and needed to stop their losing streak in hopes of turning their season around.

The game got off to a very ominous start as Julius Randle turned the ball over on the very first possession. Given how poorly he has been playing and his somewhat interesting back-and-forth with the fans, this easily could have been the start of another disastrous performance. But that wasn’t the case at all. Randle scored 10 points in the first quarter in a very efficient matter, knocking down 4-7 shots and 2-3 from downtown. Fans were also pleased to see Randle being decisive and moving the ball quickly for the most part. The former University of Kentucky forward also added three assists and two rebounds and much to the delight of fans, he didn’t turn the ball over the rest of the period.

RJ Barrett also had a great quarter and like Randle, had 10 very efficient points on just six shots. The duo was a big reason the Knicks managed to score 39 points in the first. There have been games this season where one of them has it going, but not often do they both get off to great starts. Fans were delighted to see them starting off the game so hot.

Unfortunately, the Clippers scored 31 points in what was a very solid offensive quarter for them. Ivica Zubac and Nicolas Batum scored seven and six points, respectively, and veterans Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard came off the bench with five and six points as well. As advertised, the Clippers’ offense was balanced but they had a few uncharacteristic mistakes and lapses on defense leading to the first quarter deficit.

The second quarter was a very closely contented one. The Clippers won the period 30-27, led by Reggie Jackson, who only scored two points in the opening quarter. The veteran guard came alive with 11 points, mixing in some nice floaters, three-pointers, and mid-range shots. It was the type of quarter that the Knicks had been giving up to players — even non-stars — pretty consistently as of late. But unlike some of the other instances, the Knicks were able to hold their ground and answer back with a solid quarter of their own. RJ Barrett continued his strong performance with another solid quarter. The third-year former Blue Devil added seven more points and capped it off with a 27-foot three with nine seconds left in the half. This felt especially nice given how vocal fans have been with with the Knicks tendency to rely on Randle and his inefficient isolation plays at the end of quarters.

Even with things seemingly going really well for the Knicks, the Clippers had quietly managed to shoot a blistering 59% from the field for the half. With Jackson, Zubac and Kennard all having good performances, the Clippers had put themselves in position to keep the game close. Had Marcus Morris Sr., who averages 16 PPG, not played a horrendous half, the story could have been different. But the fact remains that the Knicks still looked a lot better than they had in the previous 12 quarters. And rebounding had a lot to do with it. Through the first 24 minutes of play, the Knicks were able to out-rebound the Clippers 23-16, which was enough to make up for the difference in field goal percentage.

The Knicks had been very inconsistent all year coming out of halftime. Thankfully, those worries were put to rest immediately, as the Knicks got a stop and pushed it ahead for an Evan Fournier three to start the second half. Barrett then scored four straight points to give the Knicks a 12-point lead. But as coach Ty Lue has done so much this year, he got his team to keep fighting. While the Clippers struggled, they kept the game close enough to keep Knicks fans on their toes. Jackson had another six points in the quarter while Zubac had five more, but the rest of the team only accounted for nine points combined.

After a quiet second quarter, Randle picked it back up with nine points in the third. He really set the tone with a few nice passes and reads, something coach Tom Thibodeau needs him to do. While it wasn’t his most dominant of flashy performance, it was nice seeing him read the defense, take what they were giving him and then make the right play. He made a simple, yet nice and important pass to Fournier for a three. The lone three he hit in the quarter was of the catch-and-shoot variety, akin to the ones he made on Christmas day against the Hawks. He even had an off-ball cut (something we don’t see from him consistently) for a monstrous dunk, set up by Immanuel Quickley. And even when he wasn’t credited with points or assists, he spent much of the quarter just making the right play. It was the kind of Randle fans had been hoping to see more consistently. The Knicks also benefitted from the play of Barrett, who continued to be aggressive, and Fournier.

The Knicks took a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter. While the Clippers still had Jackson seemingly getting whatever he wanted, nobody outside of him, Zubac, and Kennard could really get anything going. Rookie guard Brandon Boston Jr. managed to score 13 points and that was the fourth-highest scorer the team had with everyone else failing to reach double-digits.

Meanwhile, the Knicks were carried by Barrett and Randle, who continued to find ways to score when the team needed baskets most. Barrett led the team with 28 points (although he did need 24 shots to get them) and Randle had a strong performance with 24 point on 15 shots. It came down to Randle and Barrett vs. Jackson and Zubac, and the former were just good enough to secure a 110-102 victory.

A win is a win, but it still wasn’t a pretty one. This game left a lot to be desired. Randle, who only had one turnover in the first quarter, managed to end the game with a whopping seven. As much as he moved the ball in the first three quarters, he, for some reason, reverted to a lot more holding onto the ball and isolation in the fourth quarter. Without that, the Knicks probably have an easier time closing out the game and resting their starters. Barrett had some clutch baskets, and his 14 rebounds were crucial to the victory, but the kind of inefficiency he showed tonight won’t cut it against some of the top teams the Knicks will have to beat in order to make a playoff push.

The win was made bittersweet by the fact that the Knicks lost Mitchell Robinson to a sprained ankle in the third quarter. We don’t know the severity of the injury yet, but it was tough to see a young player, who was finally healthy and looking to put together a streak of playing good consistent basketball, get hurt again. Robinson had been playing some his best basketball, and it’s very clear just how important he is to this basketball team.

When he is healthy, in shape, and focused, he brings a dimension to this team that nobody else can. Yes, Nerlens Noel can match some of the shot blocking, and yes Taj Gibson can bring some of the hard screen setting and rebounding, but Robinson brings all of that and a vertical threat the they cannot. Robinson, with his added weight, has become a better rebounder and his ability to catch lobs does wonders for the offense as a whole. The Knicks and their fans saw just different this team looks when he isn’t playing last year in the playoffs. Opposing centers often left the Knicks bigs to put extra pressure on Randle and anyone else driving to the rim. With Noel dealing with his own injuries this year, it will be interesting to see how Thibodeau divides up the minutes. Does this potentially mean more minutes for Obi Toppin or Jericho Sims? Doubtful, but one can hope.

While the injury is a tough blow, at least it wasn’t in a loss. As P&T’er Walt Clyde Phraser noted, it was a much-needed win. The Knicks have some very tough games coming up with a much improved Cavaliers team coming into town tomorrow. Then they face off against the Heat, Bucks, Kings, Grizzlies, Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets and Warriors. It is possible that the next couple of weeks will determine the Knicks’ season. Will they show adversity and battle back into the playoff race or will they fall further and further out of playoff contention. When asked about it, Randle said, “We’re looking forward to this road trip.” And fans, we should too. It’s a scary road trip, but in a season where we’ve seen the Knicks really good on some nights and really awful on others, we should find out more of who this team really is.