Make it two in a row, and six of seven.
The New York Knicks (24-19) visited the Washington Wizards (18-25) in the nation’s capital and defeated their hosts 112-108 to strengthen their hold on the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed.
As always, the NYC Mob found it hard to keep their heads above water as the game grew closer to its conclusion. New York started the night with a paltry 2-of-12 accuracy from the field. Washington took a commanding 12-5 lead. Of course, the Knicks flipped the script and went on a 12-0 run themselves that helped them retake the lead and finish the first period down just two.
After losing the second period by one point and winning the third by seven, the scoreboard read 80-76 entering the last 12 minutes of play.
It’d remain the same, with both teams dumping 32 pops on each other through the final quarter. It was the Knicks’ sixth victory in seven games, and this one put them five games over .500—tying a prior season-high.
Folks watching live, including our own Joe Flynn, must have thought that was never going to happen after the Knicks—once more and for the nth time—built up a 15-point lead through the fourth only to see it shrink to a meager two-point advantage with 16.1 seconds left to play. Thank God the Knicks tamper-signed Jalen Brunson last summer.
“I feel like we’ve played better as of late, but we still have some work to do,” Brunson said. “We have to close out games better and we have to find ways to make life easier for us, for each other.”
Brunson scored the final four ports for the Knicks on Friday, hitting all four freebies he attempted in the last 13 seconds of regulation. He finished the game with 34 points for the second game in a row. It’s been three consecutive outings for Brunson hitting 34+ points and seven getting back to Christmas with the point guard scoring at least 23. His eight dimes and eight rebounds didn’t hurt yesterday, either.
“We just gotta keep fighting. We knew they weren’t gonna quit. That lead helped us out a little bit and helped us secure a big enough lead to put them away at the end,” continued Brunson. “We picked it up a little bit, we got stops, got in transition, got a couple of and-ones and we just found a way.”
The Wizards were led by Kyle Kuzma’s 40-burger but not even that was enough for them to pull the W-effort off. Kristaps Porzingis was ultimately cleared and added 21 points to Washington’s tally.
Kuzma recognized greatness after the game. “Jalen Brunson. He just took over the game,” Kuzma said. “He’s an All-Star this year. He’s been playing phenomenal basketball. He delivered tonight.”
You bet, Kooz.
“There were a couple of points in the game where they had the lead and [Brunson] came right back and he brought the game back where he didn’t let it get away,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Just reading the game. Control and manage. Get us organized. [Brunson] has a lot of poise.”
Thibodeau kept running with the nine-man rotation, making it 14-of-20 successful outings when employing such a scheme. Evan Fournier, Derrick Rose, Cam Reddish, Jericho Sims, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Ryan Arcidiacono have all been entirely left off the hardwood when everybody has been available.
“Usually the best players on each team are matched up against each other,” Thibodeau said a few days ago discussing his decision to cut the rotation down to nine men. “If you’re playing against LeBron or Kevin Durant and they’re playing 38 minutes, then your wing is playing 38 minutes. When he subs out, you’re taking your guy out and that’s usually the way it works.”
It is working for the Knicks, like it or not. As pointed out by Ian Begley of SNY, though, “Since Thibodeau cut the rotation, Randle ranks second in minutes played per game.” Begley kept on going, detailing that, “Four Knicks rank in the top 35 in minutes per game,” and adding, “it’s naïve to ignore the possibility of players wearing out . . . it’s something to monitor as you get into March, April and the playoffs.”
Brunson logged 40 minutes on Friday, and Randle played 36, finishing with 23 points and 16 rebounds. Quentin Grimes and RJ Barrett spent 33 and 32 minutes on the court respectively, while Mitchell Robinson played 28, four fewer than sixth-man Immanuel Quickley’s 32.
“It’s very difficult to guard guys individually in this league. So you need everyone tied together,” Thibodeau said after the game. “There’s five guys guarding the ball.”
Quickley gave kudos to his teammates, saying that, “Everybody was being aggressive,” and adding that the collective effort is “what we need from our team.” IQ gave another good performance, hitting 7-of-13 field goals and putting up 18 points to go with four boards and a couple of dimes while entirely avoiding turning the ball over.
Barrett got his second start since returning on Wednesday, though his numbers went down a notch on all fronts. From 41 minutes to 32, from 27 points to 17, eight rebounds to five, four assists to one—all while committing five personal fouls.
Randle grabbed 16 boards for the third game in a row, although his assists numbers have decreased steadily of late. He still contributed 23 points on the day.
“I think really it’s been defensively,” Randle said. “I don’t know what the numbers have been, but our ability to grind out wins and get stops and then execute in the second half and create separation has been good for us.”
Thibodeau, echoing Randle’s thoughts, said that he “liked the way we responded.”
“I thought our defense was very good throughout. Found a way to win,” said Thibodeau.
Since the start of 2023, the Knicks have played six games (5-1), and they’re boasting top-10 offensive (115.5) and defensive (111.2) ratings. New York’s plus-4.4 net rating is tied for sixth from Jan. 1 on, and the Knicks lead the league in rebounding percentage (54%) on top of everything. Not bad for a start.
New York flies to Detroit to face the Pistons (12-34) on the road come Sunday afternoon (1 pm EST tip-off), so don’t oversleep. Back at MSG on Monday.