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Recap of the Knicks’ four-game swing through the Western Conference

Some surprises, some career nights: the Knicks break even against stiff Western Conference competition due to star performances by Brunson, Randle, and Hartenstein

New York Knicks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images

The New York Knicks, amid the toughest December schedule of any NBA team, recently conducted a four-game swing through the Western Conference. With stops in Utah, Phoenix, and Los Angeles (twice) . . . plus a back-to-back . . . plus missing their starting center . . . New York could have easily dropped all or three of their contests. Instead, they split the slate 2-2 and did so with some wicked awesome highlights. Here’s your recap, gentlefolk.

Utah Jazz, Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Off to their best start since December 2016 with a record of 13-10, the Knicks had been perfect against sub-.500 teams before facing the Utah Jazz. The Jazz (then 8-16) ranked in the league’s bottom five for both offense and defense. They had dropped seven of their previous ten games, mostly due to injuries (e.g., Lauri Markkanen had missed eight straight). And yet, the Knicks lost, 117-113.

New York missed seven three-point attempts to start, which set the tone for the night on the way to their season’s third-worst three-point shooting performance. Lacking Mitchell Robinson, their vaunted defense allowed Utah to race off on a 24-8 run in the second period.

All game, the Knicks struggled defensively and couldn’t buy a three-cent bucket. They trailed, 89-84, entering the fourth quarter and then let the Jazz start off 10-0, resulting in a 17-point differential.

A late surge couldn’t save the Knicks because they couldn’t make defensive stops. RJ Barrett missed his first nine shots and finished 3-of-16 from the field and 0-of-7 from deep. Jalen Brunson posted 23 points, seven rebounds, and eight assists, but shot 32% from the field and missed all six of his longballs. Jericho Sims leapfrogged from third-string benchwarmer to starting center and looked the part, recording four points, two rebounds, and a block in 18 confused minutes.

It’s a universally accepted equation: Poor defense plus poor shooting equals no joy. On the bright side: Julius Randle led the team with 32 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists. Donte DiVincenzo had the team’s best defensive rating in 28 minutes, scored 21 points, seven rebounds, and four steals. He and Immanuel Quickley were the Knicks’ only marksmen, combining for 7-of-13 from downtown. Overall, a surprising defeat in Utah.

Phoenix Suns, Friday, December 15, 2023

The middling Phoenix Suns had won only two of their previous six games. However, their defense had gained strength, and their big three (Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal) were finally healthy and ready to play together against the Knicks.

Healthy . . . until Beal turned an ankle five minutes into the game and ended his night.

Jalen Brunson stole the headlines for this 139-122 victory, netting a career-highs of 50 points and nine-of-nine three-pointers, and nine assists, six rebound, five steals, a team-high defensive rating of 116, and only two turnovers. It’s not hyperbole to call that one of the best offensive performances of all time.

Nonetheless, the team needed a balanced offense to win, and, indeed, ‘twas a thing of beauty. Despite Phoenix’s strong shooting in the first half, the Knicks mostly held the lead by excelling in second-chance points, points in the paint, offensive rebounds, and steals.

After halftime, Kevin Durant, Jusuf Nurkic, and Devin Booker combined for 78 total points and were poised to break the game open, yet Brunson and the Knicks kept punching back. After a strong first half, Randle stumbled in the third period, but recovered and was a perfect partner to Brunson down the stretch. Early in the fourth quarter, Barrett, Quentin Grimes, and Quickley all contributed to a comeback. In particular, RJ Barrett made up for his farty game in Utah with an almost perfect first-quarter statline and a fine overall game (21 points on 60% shooting and perfection at the foul line).

With Sims as the lead center, the Knicks needed all hands on glass. Randle and Isaiah Hartenstein both grabbed eight boards in this one, and the latter added three blocks. A surprising win in the desert—and so much fun to stick it to Durant.

Los Angeles Clippers, Saturday, December 16, 2023

That’s right, game two of a back-to-back on the road. To make matters worsse, the Clippers had won six straight and eight of their last ten games. Paul George was questionable (hip), but decided to play in the game alongside James Harden and Kawhi Leonard. Yeah.

Early on, the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac targeted Jericho Sims, scoring nine points, and ushering in an Isaiah Hartentstein substitution after five minutes. Sims shouldn’t shoulder the blame for this dogpile alone. Despite keeping the game close for 20 minutes, the Knicks’ terrible defensive efforts allowed the Clippers to collect 77 points before intermission. That’s the most first-half points surrendered by the Knicks during the current campaign. It didn’t help that the Clippers had taken 30 first-half free throws, the most by an NBA team this season.

The Clippers extended their lead to 22 points in the third quarter. Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle briefly cut the deficit to 13, but the Clippers held firm and won, 144-122.

Among the starters, Brunson, Barrett, and Randle all scored 18 or more points, but shot a combined 4-of-15 from deep. DiVincenzo, who scored only five points in Phoenix, bounced back with 18 and made five of eight three-pointers. Against his former team, Isaiah Hartenstein had a strong performance off the bench with a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds, plus three blocks in 30 minutes.

No surprises here. This was the definition of a scheduled loss. The Clippers look like championship contenders, and the travelin’ Knicks looked tired. On to the next.

Los Angeles Lakers, Monday, December 18, 2023

This road trip was not without thrills. First, Jalen Brunson scored career highs in Phoenix. Then on Monday, Isaiah Hartenstein grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds in 39 minutes. That alone earned him MVP honors in the Knicks’ 114-109 victory (although Julius Randle came a close second).

The first quarter saw back-and-forth action, with the Knicks taking a 35-27 lead on the strength of Julius Randle and Immanuel Quickley combining for 21 points. In the second period, the Knicks maintained a lead with another balanced attack, utilizing contributions from Randle, Brunson, Barrett, and Quickley.

Jericho Sims twisted his ankle on the tip-off, which ended his night (and his next 1-2 weeks, we later learned). This led to newly-signed Taj Gibson helping out, but Hartenstein did most of the paint work this evening against future hall-of-famer, Anthony Davis.

The Lakers closed the half with a 19-6 run for a one-point lead at intermission. New York recovered in the third quarter, spreading the wealth on a 15-2 run and bringing a 90-80 lead into the final period. LeBron James tried to exert his will in the last frame, but the Knicks stood their ground to secure victory, thanks to out-rebounding LA 52-41. Drafted by Los Angeles, Julius Randle loves to return there and finished with a 27-point, 14-rebound double-double.


Due to the competition and travel, the Knicks could have easily blown the trip and wasted some expensive airplane tickets. They split the slate instead. The win in Phoenix surprised the most–but then again, the Suns might be a paper tiger (check their recent wins and losses). And, boy, that win over LeBron James sure went down easy.

As the Knicks head home, a tough reality faces them in the frontcourt. Without Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks will have a difficult time against top-notch bigs. Isaiah Hartenstein is a bona-fide starter, but he can’t play all 48 minutes. Jericho Sims has much room for improvement and the age-defying Taj Gibson can be counted on for 10 minutes or so, realistically. By my count, Thibs allowed for one minute of small-ball last night in Brooklyn; don’t count on Randle playing much five.

With Robinson expected to miss the entire season, the Knicks must scan the trade market for a big who can play a lot of center and some power forward–and contribute more than, say, Isaiah Roby (no shots fired, just being real). They might have to dip into their trove of draft picks to land such a player. . . and won’t that hurt their position when hunting for a star next off-season? Leon Rose & Co. have much to ponder.

Notables from the four games out West:

  • Jalen Brunson averaged 31 points, 6.5 assists, and six rebounds over the four games. What’s more to say about JB, except that if not for him and the following guy, this team would be in the doldrums?
  • Julius Randle averaged 26 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists–and shot a perfect 12-of-12 from the foul line. He hit only 4-of-16 from deep, but aside from that and a sloppy quarter or two, he left little to complain about. Get your All-Star votes in!
  • Donte DiVincenzo averaged 13 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists while shooting 55% from the field and 52% from deep. His consistent production continues to validate Tom Thibodeau’s decision to make him the starting shooting guard.
  • RJ Barrett averaged 15 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.3 assists, but made only three of his 18 three-pointers (17%). What he couldn’t get on the floor, he got at the foul line, where he canned 19 of 20 attempts. Hark! RJ Barrett is an 86% free-throw shooter through the first quarter of the season!
  • Immanuel Quickley averaged 13.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 22.7 minutes. He made seven of 17 three-pointers and shot 51%. He averaged 28.9 minutes per game in the 2022-23 campaign, but is down to 24 this season. While he still nets 15 points an outing, the decline in minutes must frustrate a player who aspires to be an NBA starter (even if he’s too classy to admit that to the press). Unless the Knicks part with a guard or two, I don’t see a path for I.Q. to get more time, either. Enjoy him while you have him, Knicks fans.
  • Isaiah Hartenstein averaged 10.3 rebounds, 8.8 points, 2.5 blocks, and 32.2 minutes while shooting 77% from the floor and 60% at the foul line. Here’s a thought to rile you up. . . . We all love Mitch, but he’s been injury-prone, and the latest surgery interrupted his best season so far. Would you throw rocks at MSG if the Knicks traded Mitch in a package for a star, then paid Hartenstein next summer and elevated him to starting center? Or are you holding out for Mitch to rebound (big pun, yes) in 2024 and pick up where he left off?

The Knicks next play at home against the Bucks on Saturday (and then again on Christmas). Oy vey. . . . Go Knicks!