For the first time since November 15, the New York Knicks (23-19) were able to recover from a loss without stringing two defeats together, thanks to a 119-113 win over the visiting Indiana Pacers (23-19) at MSG.
The Knicks had been alternating win and loss streaks for almost two months. After a defeat to the Oklahoma City Thunder on November 13, they had never avoided back-to-back losses until Wednesday when they put the Pacers to sleep after sweating a six-point victory at home.
New York built a monster 25-point lead through the third quarter, but Indiana, led by Buddy Hield (31 points), cut the deficit to a tiny two points with 3:10 left in regulation. Considering the Knicks' ineptitude when it comes to holding on to their seemingly insurmountable leads, nobody was that surprised to see that happen.
“We scored 119 points, I’m not concerned about us scoring. What I am concerned about is our defense and not letting up,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “A 20-point lead is not safe in this league. If you’re watching the games, you see it.”
Thibodeau also said that “you’ve got to fight human nature,” adding that “you can’t exhale, you gotta keep your foot on people.”
Wednesday’s game marked RJ Barrett’s return to the starting lineup after missing the last two weeks and six games while healing a lacerated finger injured back on December 27 against the Mavs.
“I knew there would be some rust,” Thibodeau said of Barrett’s performance. “But overall, did a good job.”
Thibodeau used Barrett for 41 minutes, the second-most among Knicks players only behind Brunson’s 42. Barrett finished with 27 points, shooting 9-of-23 from the field and hitting 4-of-12 long-range shots while dishing out four dimes and pulling down eight boards.
“I was trying to be aggressive. I’ve been working. I haven’t been just sitting down,” Barrett said. “To be able to go out there with my teammates having confidence in me was huge for me. I was just trying to find some sort of rhythm and be aggressive.”
Barrett didn’t seem to care that much about Thibodeau playing him for 40-plus minutes in his first game back, though, saying that his finger felt “good enough to play” and that he could have played even more minutes had the game and the coach needed that from him. “Whenever you suit up, expect the unexpected. So just do whatever you can.”
Thibodeau reasoned his heavy use of Barrett after the game, saying that through his spell out of commission the Knicks missed him for “the all-around play,” and “the versatility, scoring ability, [getting] downhill, get into the paint, make plays, good size, wing defender.”
“We’re working two guys back into the rotation so it’s gonna be a little choppy. We knew that going in,” said Thibodeau.
Obi Toppin, who returned to the rotation last Monday against Milwaukee, logged nine minutes, scored five points, grabbed a couple of rebounds, assisted on two buckets, and stole one possession from Indy’s paws.
Immanuel Quickley was the man hitting the pine to make room for Barrett in the starting lineup. IQ, playing on a reduced 26-minute reserve role, was good for 11 points scoring on just 1-of-7 three-point attempts. Quentin Grimes remained in the starting lineup playing 30 minutes and putting on a strong, all-around contribution of 18 points, five rebounds, two dimes, and two thefts.
Grimes also hit a deciding three-point shot with a possession left to wrap things up and earn New York their 23rd win of the season. “Once he called my number, I knew I had to be ready,” Grimes said. “And if the pass was coming to me I had to knock it down, and that’s what happened tonight.”
Discussing Grimes’ three-pointer, Brunson said that he thought Grimes “had a layup,” later revealing that Grimes told the team “he wanted a three, so he shot a three.”
“That’s a lot of confidence by [Grimes],” said Brunson.
Mr. Suppossed Wannabe Fake journalist Wally Szczerbiak didn’t have to endure a complete revenge game by Tyrese Haliburton as the Pacers guard was forced out of the game early. He suffered knee and elbow injuries in the third quarter after scoring 15 points in 27 minutes on the court, adding seven assists to that tally.
His opponent at the point, Brunson, led the Knicks in points with 34 while only turning the ball over once completing four assists and grabbing three boards. It can be said that Brunson surely beat his main competitor yesterday, on a head-to-head matchup for a place in February’s All-Star game.
“I feel like I strive to be the best player every time I step on the court,” Brunson said, “first and foremost.”
Brunson has been that player for the Knicks this calendar year at the very least. In New York’s 5-1 start to the year, Brunson leads all Knickerbockers in PPG (33.2) and APG (5.6) while also having the fourth-highest average in RPG (5.2). He’s also keeping up blistering 52.6/50.0/77.5 shooting splits on 22.8 FGA and 6 3PA.
JB thinks his job “is to be a great teammate,” and just “be the best version of myself, help my team win games, and just be a part of something special.”
Julius Randle, the leader Brunson has replaced of late, at least as quarterback and commander, had a night off in the shooting department, going 5-of-12 for 14 points but pulling down a game-high 16 boards.
Mitchell Robinson, the other glass honcho roaming New York’s hardwood, fell one rebound short of dub-dubbing with 10 points on the evening (though he stole five rocks and swatted a couple of shots).
“A win’s a win in this league,” Brunson said, “especially [against] a team that we’re fighting for position with.”
After Wednesday’s win, New York overtook Indiana for the sixth spot in the East, tied with the Pacers but leading their regular-season series 2-0. They have final two games against Indiana tacked onto the end of the season schedule in early April.
“They made the game really scrappy, but we stayed tough and we didn’t let them go all the way and get the win. Proud of that,” Barrett said after the game. “They’re a good team, they’re ahead of us so that’s a good win for us. Leads are never safe, especially with today’s NBA. We have to do a better job when we have a lead to sustain it.”
The win put New York at an even 11-11 record on games played at MSG, thus turning into the only team with a winning record overall but not sitting above .500 at home. That will stay that way until next Monday at least, as the Knicks go on the road for their next two games starting with a visit to the Washington Wizards on Friday, followed by a Sunday trip to Detroit.