Fans spilled out of Madison Square Garden to party in the streets. No, the New York Knicks didn’t win the NBA Championship. Not even close. So why the exuberant celebration? After years of frustration and two failed attempts the last couple of weeks, the Knicks (17-17) have finally reached the elusive .500 mark. New York looked listless early, but the fourth quarter play of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett along with a heroic defensive stand spurred by Derrick Rose and Frank Ntilikina saved the day in a 110-107 win over Indiana (15-17). The win places the Knicks in a tie for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, the highest they have been at this point of the season since 2013.
Twice New York had inched within a game of the .500 mark in the past 10 days. Both times Tom Thibodeau’s squad suffered disappointing losses to teams they certainly could have beaten. Last season at this point the Knicks were 17-42 and won just 21 games total.
“I didn’t know it, but it feels good to be at .500. This is my first time at .500 in a long time,” said guard Derrick Rose who has started the last two games in place of injured Elfrid Payton. “You’ve got to stay even-keeled. We have an important game [Sunday]. That game is more important than tonight’s game and we have to come out with the same edge, if not even more.”
The game turned into a see-saw battle down the stretch. The Knicks were clinging to a 108-106 lead with 14 seconds to go when Barrett missed a pair of foul shots giving the Pacers a chance to hit a game-winning shot. After using a timeout to draw up a set play and advance the ball, Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis tried to flip a short pass to T.J. McConnell. Rose tipped the ball and Ntilikina collected it, dribbled to the other end of the court and was fouled. Ntilikina made both shots to make it 110-106 to clinch the victory. Rose inexplicably fouled McConnell during a desperation half-court heave with less than a second left. After making the first free throw McConnell missed the second on purpose and time expired.
At the start it appeared as though it would be another blown opportunity. The Pacers rode the scoring of former Knicks Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott to open up a 16 point advantage. Meanwhile, the Knicks couldn’t throw the ball in the proverbial ocean. New York however closed the half on a 24-9 run to garner a 54-52 lead at the half. Rose nailed a trey at the buzzer to put a bow on the comeback.
“We didn’t start the game well, it was funky, and we had to work our way through it. It’s a long game, but the most important thing was just finding a way to win at the end,” Knicks coach TomThibodeau said.
New York was facing a 98-93 deficit with four minutes remaining. A three-pointer and a traditional three-point play from Barrett handed the Knicks a 99-98 edge. Next, a corner trey from Randle capped a 9-0 run to make it 102-98. Indiana continued to battle aided by a pair of late New York turnovers. Consequently, the late steal allowed the Knicks to hold on.
Nerlens Noel was an integral part of the Knicks effort. Mitchell Robinson is out injured after hand surgery. Taj Gibson exited the contest with a sprained ankle after only four minutes. Noel was forced to play a season-high 41 minutes despite being in foul trouble in the first half.
“We obviously needed it, needed the size, needed the rim protection,” Thibodeau said. “Next man up. We’ve got more than enough with the players that we have. I know [the front office] will look into players that are available. That’s their area. I’m just focused on the guys we have. We’ll figure out a way.”
Randle led the Knicks with 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists after a quiet first half. Barrett contributed 24 points including a pair of key fourth quarter three-pointers. Rose finished with 17 points. Immanuel Quickley had 10 points in 13 minutes and produced a four-point play for the second straight game.
McDermott finished with 20 points for Indiana, mainly in the first half. McConnell added 17 and Sabonis 15. Holiday (13) and Myles Turner (11) also reached double-digits for the Pacers.
The Knicks will try to elcipse the .500 mark Sunday with an 8 p.m. meeting with the Pistons in Detroit.
(Elsa/Pool Photo via AP)