It may be a little early for any team to call a game a “must win,” but that is exactly what Julius Randle and other New York Knicks (10-13) deemed Wednesday night’s game at Chicago (8-12). The Knicks let a 19 point lead slip away, but still managed to hang on for a 107-103 win at the United Center. New York came into the game having lost five of their last six.
The Knicks entered the contest looking to avenge a loss to Chicago two nights earlier. New York came out determined. Led by much maligned point guard Elfrid Payton and the red hot perimeter shooting of Randle, the Knicks took command in the first. Payton and RJ Barrett staked the Knicks to a 16-6 lead. Randle then connected on a trio of consecutive three-pointers, and Alec Burks added another as the lead ballooned to 34-15. New York led 34-17 after a quarter. Randle tallied 11 points in the frame. Payton added 10 more.
Randle said the fast start by Payton was important for the Knicks.
“If you look at the trends of our wins, when we play well, he plays well. We need him to do that,” Randle said of Payton. “We all feed off of it when he’s aggressive like that. … We need more of that from EP. He’s great when he’s like that.”
Early in the second the Bulls started to pick up their game. Treys by Garrett Temple and Denzel Valentine pulled Chicago within 12. After the Knicks pushed the lead back to 16, another three-pointer from Valentine and back-to-back baskets from Zach LaVine brought the Bulls to within 45-35. New York recovered to build their advantage back to 15, but a 4-0 run by the Bulls in the final minute cut it to 63-52 at halftime.
Both teams exhibited sloppy play to open the second half. Turnovers and erratic shooting were the norm in the stanza. However, the Knicks did enough to raise the lead back to 19 with just over five minutes on another three-pointer from Randle and a pair of baskets by Reggie Bullock. Chicago put together an 8-0 spurt to pull within 81-70, infuriating Thibodeau. A layup by LaVine with just under 2:30 to play in the quarter got the Bulls within single digits at 83-74. A long trey by Randle as time expired gave New York a 91-76 lead heading to the fourth.
The fourth quarter would come down to one of two things. Would the Knicks come out and put a fork in the Bulls while they had them on the ropes? Or would Chicago finally find their shooting touch to pull off a comeback effort? The Bulls were 0-for-9 from long range in the third and were only 4-for-29 from three-point range over the first 36 minutes.
Early in the fourth the Knicks appeared comfortable, but a three-pointer by Valentine and a basket by Patrick Williams brought Chicago within seven. A lob by Valentine to Daniel Gafford for a dunk whittled the Bull’s deficit to 99-94 with just over six minutes to play. A slam my Lauri Markkenen made it a three point game. A baseline three from the corner by Bullock and a short jumper in the paint by Payton stopped the bleeding and the Knicks were able to hang on.
Randle led the Knicks with another outstanding performance. He scored 27 points to go with six rebounds and six assists. Payton was unstoppable getting into the paint, finishing with 20 points and eight boards. Barrett contributed 17 points.
With rookie Immanuel Quickley pushing him for his spot on the floor, Payton rose to the challenge.
“That’s what we expect from him — a veteran leader, play strong on both sides of the ball, share the ball, make the right plays and set an example for everyone,’’ Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He gives the team the belief we can win. You get that by making hustle plays. The more hustle plays, the more it ignites and inspires the team. That’s what we expect from him.’’
New York returns to Madison Square Garden this weekend for back-to-back contests against Portland Saturday and Miami Sunday.
. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)