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Knicks 131, Clippers 115: “Give him the ball and get out of the way”

NBA: New York Knicks at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

With how this season has gone, if you heard that the Knicks were involved in yet another game with a big comeback, you’d most likely assume that the Knicks blew the lead with missed free throws, bad turnovers, and offensive ineptitude. Well this time, it was the Knicks doing the coming back — from down 20 to a 16-point win over the Sacramento Kings.

But as great as the win felt, and looked (in the second half), the game was not a pretty sight early on. The Knicks got off to a very slow start on the second night of a back-to-back as they quickly went down 12-2. Domantas Sabonis scored nine of those 12 points. Sabonis, an All-Star caliber player who the Knicks should obviously have game planned for, going off early was not a great sign, as he was getting whatever he wanted.

Not only were the Knicks a turnstile defensively, they could not buy a bucket. The Knicks wouldn’t score their fifth point of the game until the 6:54 mark of the first quarter, when RJ Barrett hit a free throw to make it 14-5. Harrison Barnes then went on a little 9-5 run of his own to grow the lead. The rest of the quarter continued to be very Sacramento-favored as they took a 16-point lead into the second quarter.

The second quarter was by no means pretty or good, but it was a step in the right direction. They showed a bit more life by scoring 31 points in the quarter and at least giving themselves a chance to get back into the game. While it was a pretty back-and-forth quarter, there were positives to hang some hope on. Both Barrett and Immanuel Quickley had huge quarters with 11 points. Barrett, who has been one of the lone bright spots for the team this season, continued his strong offensive production by doing what he has been doing best: getting to the rim and attacking. Quickley did a great job of not settling and getting to the rim, which led to him taking five free throw attempts in the quarter alone, which is huge since he only averages 2.3 attempts per game for his career.

While the offense was a lot better, the defense still remained suspect as they gave up 30 points to a Sacramento Kings team that, at 14th in the league in points per game, is considered just an average offense. The Kings, unlike the Knicks, were led by a balanced attack with Donte DiVicenzo, Josh Jackson, Justin Holiday, De’Aaron Fox, Davion Mitchell, Barnes, and Sabonis all chipping in. The Knicks entered halftime down 63-48, but there was still hope considering the Knicks seemed to come alive in the second quarter. It also helped that they were playing a Kings team that sat at 24-42 prior to the game.

The Knicks came out of the break with a three-pointer from Randle. While nobody thought much of that one basket then, it might have been the turning point, as Randle hitting outside shots became a common theme for the remainder of the game. Randle seemed like a man on a mission playing hard on both ends and hitting an array of difficult shots. He went on to score 15 points in a quarter in which the team exploded for 44 points. Joining Randle in his third quarter efforts was Evan Fournier, who had been struggling with his shot a bit as of late. Fournier chipped in 10 points of his own, including a pair of 3s.

The Knicks defense hasn’t been on the same level as it was last season, especially in terms of effort. While some of it is personnel changes, some of it is just effort. The fact is that this team’s defensive efforts can depend on how the offense is going. It’s by no means a sign of a good or consistent team, but it kind of just is who they are at his point. Luckily for the Knicks and Knicks fans, with the offense rolling in the third quarter, this team was a lot more engaged defensively, which led to more stops and them playing a bit faster as well, which led to easier baskets. After allowing 30 or more points in each of the first two quarters, the Knicks held the Kings to just 24 in the third. Fox tried to carry his team as he came alive with 14 in the quarter, but ultimately, it was just him for the most part since the Knicks were able to slow down Sabonis, mainly with Taj Gibson, who had to play big minutes in the second half due to Mitchell Robinson going out with a non COVID-related illness.

It was a weird spot to be in for the Knicks, not only because they were on the good side of a comeback for once, but also because it was still close despite having one of the best quarters of the season. Sure they were back in the game and the game came down to one quarter, but all the positive feelings and hope could be shattered in that quarter. With the Murphy’s Law-esque Knicks, losing to the Kings after surmounting a huge come back but not having enough gas after exerting so much energy just to get back into the game, seemed not only conceivable but also a very likely result.

Fortunately, however, the trio of Randle, Barrett, and Quickley made sure that didn’t happen. Randle, on his way to a career-high 46-point performance, continued to hit from deep and punish the Kings. As Barrett alluded to above, they pretty much just gave him the ball and got out of the way. He was unconscious from deep, and it looked like everything he threw up there was going in. It really was an unreal performance. Huge credit to Randle for a big time performance amidst a lot of talks about his psyche and mentality.

As Randle was torching the Kings, Barrett continued to attack the paint. Quickley was locked in, and got his outside shot going as well. The Knicks posted 39 more points in the fourth quarter while holding the Kings to just 28. It was yet another blowout quarter and with the momentum fully on the Knicks’ side, it didn’t seem like anything could stop them. You had everything in the quarter a fan could want really. Randle had a career night, Barrett continued to bloom before our eyes, Quickley was showing the kind of performance we had been wanting see from him. The defense stepped up when it needed to, and we even saw Sabonis get ejected. To top it all off, we actually got to see Quickley, an elite free throw shooter, get to shoot the technical foul shots last night instead of Randle, who has historically taken them for the team.

The win gave the Knicks back-to-back wins for the first time in 23 games. It was the kind of feel good win that was both fun to watch and had good substance that the team could build off of (unfortunately, that is something that the team has not had a lot of this season). Not only that, but it was a pretty historical win in terms of stats. Randle, Barrett and Quickley combined for 102 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists and 14 3PM and they became the first Knicks trio to score at least 25 points each in a game since Carmelo Anthony (35), J.R. Smith (25) and Steve Novak (25) did it on April 17, 2012 vs. the Celtics. The 83 points that the team scored in the second half is also the most in franchise history since they scored 83 against Phoenix on December 28th, 1969.

With the team sitting in the 12th seed, making the play-ins will be a tough task, one that fans are not even sure they want to see achieved. Sure the team, especially the young core could benefit from more playoff experience, but fans also know that this team is not going far in the playoffs and may just prefer better draft positioning. This is an almost awkward position for the team to be in. The priority, for the fans at least, seems to be the continued growth of the young talent on the team. Win or lose, most fans at this point are prioritizing building for the future. And thankfully, Tom Thibodeau has allowed that to happen... at least more than before. While he may still not play Obi Toppin or Cam Reddish or Deuce McBride as much as we want, he has been more willing to play the young core a bit more and even more importantly, he has allowed them to play together. Seeing lineups with Barrett and Quickley more has been a delight, especially when Reddish and McBride are also in there with them. That is a core that has a lot of potential not only offensively, but defensively as well. The Knicks have a tough three game stretch against the Mavericks, Grizzlies, and Nets coming up so here’s to hoping that regardless of the results, we get to keep seeing the young core develop.