Despite their record, the Houston Rockets (19-21) are no pushovers. Eleven of their 20 losses came by seven points or less, and their defense is the league’s sixth-best. Tonight’s game against the New York Knicks (24-17) was their sixth of a long road trip. After this one, you can bet they’re relieved to be heading home.
Both teams battled fiercely throughout a slog that showcased the Rockets’ defense and the Knicks’ resilience. Neither team shot the ball well, especially in the first half, but Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson proved to be the best two players on the floor tonight. Including this tilt, Randle and Brunson have both scored 30 points or more in four games this season. Plus, this was the 14th time this season that all the starters had positive (non-zero) net ratings. Good stuff from the first five.
On Tom Thibodeau’s 65th birthday, the Knicks win at MSG, 109-94. Went like this.
To start the game, the Rockets showed the hallmarks of a top ten defense. Their deflections broke up plays, and they forced three three turnovers in the first five minutes (and five total in the first period). Led by Fred VanVleet, they circulate the ball well, and nine of their 10 first-quarter field goals came via assists.
Julius Randle slouched through Monday’s matinee against the Magic but scored the Knicks’ five first points tonight. The eagerness to exert his dominance was encouraging. He recorded 11 of the Knicks’ 23 first-quarter points.
Back in uniform after missing two games, Jalen Brunson made his first shot, a three-pointer. He finished the quarter with six points and showed no ill effects of the previous calf injury.
The lead see-sawed throughout the quarter. Houston kept their promise of poor three-point shooting, making only two of their nine attempts from deep in Q1. The Knicks didn’t capitalize on their ineptitude, because they had plenty of their own—New York made only three of their own 10 trey attempts in the first frame.
The Knicks entered the second quarter trailing 25-23. With an asinine Mortal Kombat move, Dillon Brooks flew into Quentin Grimes for a downtown foul. QG swished all three from the stripe, then drained two more freebies on his next trip. Despite missing nine straight three-point attempts, New York went on a 7-0 run. Practice your free-throws kids!
The Rockets managed only four points by midway through the second quarter. The Knicks couldn’t expand upon their lead, however, with Houston’s defense harrassing their shooters. Late in the half, New York mounted another 7-0 run with scores by Anunoby, Randle, and DiVincenzo—nice balance!—but then surrendered six straight. By intermission, New York clung to a narrow lead, 48-46.
In the first half, Jalen Green led the Rockets with 10 points, and Alperen Şengün added eight points, five boards. For New York, Randle had 14 points, Brunson had 10. Miles McBride has been dynamite from deep of late, but missed his first three attempts tonight. He wasn’t alone—New York had shot 29% from deep, Houston had shot 21%. Uhhhgly stuff!
Your halftime stat chart:
The Knicks charged out of the locker room and—powered by back-to-back threes by OG Anunoby—went up by seven points and forced Houston’s Ime Udoka to call a timeout. The breather didn’t help. The Knicks kept moving the ball and playing with uncommon pace, Jalen Brunson did a Mikhail Baryshnikov impersonation, Anunoby was a parsimonious defender, and thanks to all that, New York seized their largest lead yet, 12 points. Teamwork!
Brunson showed fatigue as the quarter ran down, Houston’s grabby defense caused some Knick sloppiness. By the buzzer, New York held the lead, 77-69.
OG is AUTOMATIC from that spot pic.twitter.com/uSLrEJFDMP— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) January 18, 2024
Five quick points trigged Udoka to call another timeout and light into the 21-year-old Şengün for a defensive lapse that allowed a backdoor score. Later, with the Knicks up by 12, Şengün bricked two from the charity stripe. Later still, a Hartenstein block was rocketed ahead to OG Anunoby for an electrifying dunk and And-1 foul by Şengün. Could be a long flight back to Houston for the big young fella if he has to sit anywhere near the coach.
Grimes had a decent game—11 points, 2-of-6 from deep—and was the bright spot among a bench crew that totaled 21 points. Josh Hart contributed 10 points and 13 rebounds, and was a genuine sparkplug to help the Knicks push the lead out to 17 points. And Thibs was two-for-two on coach’s challenges. Way to go, birthday boy.
The Rockets kept clawing, but found that 17-point deficit too much to overcome. In the final minutes, Randle hammed it up to make sure that he broke 30 points—and why not? He earned a little extra shine with a strong second-half performance. Final score: Knicks 109, Rockets 94.
Tomorrow, the Washington Wizards’ misery train rolls into the MSG station. Thanks for slugging this one out, Knicks.
Your Knicks box score: