Don’t look now, but the New York Knicks are becoming one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Twenty-four hours after holding the Boston Celtics to 75 points, the Knicks did it again. Reggie Bullock and RJ Barrett combined on a defensive gem late in the game and the Knicks (7-8) held on for a 91-84 win over the Orlando Magic on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Madison Square Garden. The win marked the first time the Knicks have won both games of a back-to-back set in 40 games attempts.
Meanwhile, Orlando (6-8) continued to struggle with five losses in a row. The Magic opened the season with four straight wins, but injuries have depleted their roster.
The Knicks shot just 35.6% from the field and were a dismal 5-for-27 from three-point range for 18.5% — not exactly stats to write home about. However, when you play defense like New York does, you still can compete, even when shooting the basketball poorly.
“I love winning, so low-scoring, high-scoring, medium-scoring, it doesn’t matter,’’ Knicks coach TomThibodeau said. “I just want to win. Whatever we have to do to find a way to win, improve every day, I want to be playing our best down the stretch.”
Orlando entered the Monday matinee as one of the lowest scoring teams in the league. Fittingly, they lived up to that billing. The Magic shot just 33.7% from the floor and 31.6% from behind the arc. The Knicks held them to just 13 points in the first quarter and 38 for the half.
However, New York’s own shooting woes allowed the Magic to stay in the game. And it almost cost them. An aggressive drive and dunk by Elfrid Payton with 2:30 to play in the third quarter gave the Knicks a 13 point lead. New York took their biggest lead of the day at 14 early in the final stanza, but Orlando responded.
Nikola Vucevic nailed a three-pointer with 8:54 to go to pull Orlando within 71-66. An Aaron Gordon trey with just under six minutes to play tied the game at 73 with 7:30 to play. The Magic then grabbed their first lead since early in the contest. Terrence Ross collected a jump ball with 2.4 seconds left on the shot clock. Ross’s desperation heave miraculously found its way through the rim to make it 81-80.
Finally, just as it seemed the victory was about to be pulled from their grasp, the Knicks got a bucket from Julius Randle off his patented spin move to regain the lead 83-81 with 57 ticks left on the clock. On the ensuing possession, Barrett deflected a pass that Bullock intercepted. Bullock fed the streaking Barrett who went to the hoop for a layup to put the Knicks back up 85-81 with 46 seconds to go. New York held on the rest of the way.
Randle struggled for much of the afternoon. He still managed to finish with a double-double, tallying 21 points and 17 rebounds. Randle went only 5-for-19 from the field. He was 7-for-12 from the free throw line, making some clutch shots down the stretch.
“I couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean, goodness,” Randle said. “But we won the game with our fight, passion, how unselfish we played for each other and we just fought on the defensive end. We got back to our principles. Our defense is what won us the game today. I’m proud of everybody.’’
Barrett had another solid outing for the Knicks with 22 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Reggie Bullock added 13 points. Payton contributed 12 points to the effort and Immanuel Quickley 11.
Vucevic paced Oralndo with 24 points and 14 boards. Gordon had 18 points and 17 rebounds. Ross added 19 points off the bench.
It may not have been pretty, but it was just what the Knicks needed before heading West on a four-game swing.
“We’re finding ways to win and that’s the important part,’’ Randle said. “One thing we know we can rely on is our defense every night and our rebounding.’’
New York will try for their third consecutive win Thursday night at Golden State.
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens, Pool)