It has been a mantra preached by Tom Thibodeau all season. “Next man up.” Thibodeau’s New York Knicks have never used injuries as an excuse to lose a game, and Thursday night was no exception. With the three point guards on the top of their depth chart all unavailable and facing a three-game losing skid, the Knicks again flashed their grit.
After watching a 16-point third quarter advantage slip away the Knicks (21-21) stepped up down the stretch to edge Orlando 94-93 at Madison Square Garden. New York snapped a two-game losing streak after dropping hard-fought games to Eastern Conference leaders Brooklyn and Philadelphia. The loss was the ninth in a row for the Magic (13-27).
Both teams came into the contest shorthanded. The Knicks were without Derrick Rose (COVID-19 restrictions), Immanuel Quickley (ankle) and Elfrid Payton (groin). Meanwhile, Orlando was without Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams and Cole Anthony. The victory would come down to which team had the fortitude to outlast the other.
“It’s all about the fight, and that’s a big part of this league,” Thibodeau said. “That’s what I love about these guys. … We’re starting to see the results of all the preparation and extra work people are putting in.”
It was clear the Knicks were trying to find their footing early on. With Alec Burks and Frank Ntilikina starting in the backcourt, and neither one being a true floor general, Orlando constructed an early lead. A baseline trey by Evan Fournier gave the Magic a 20-10 edge. Orlando led 26-24 after a quarter. Consecutive three-pointers by Reggie Bullock propelled the Knicks to a 43-38 lead. New York led 45-44 at halftime.
In the third quarter the Knicks appeared poised to blow the Magic away. A pair of treys by Ntilikina extended the New York lead to 54-46. A three-pointer by RJ Barrett made it 57-46. After Randle canned a deep three with two minutes remaining in the stanza the Knicks held their biggest lead at 72-56.
Orlando was not done yet. First, the Magic ended the third on a 10-0 run. A three-pointer by Dwayne Bacon and an acrobatic shot at the buzzer by Khem Birch sliced the deficit to 72-66. Next, Orlando opened the fourth with a 9-2 spurt to grab the lead back at 75-74.
This one came down to the final ticks on the clock. Bullock who was out of the starting five for the first time this season when healthy went from being the goat to the hero. With the Knicks leading 94-93 Fournier tied up Bullock for a jump ball. The Magic won the tap giving them a chance for a game-winning bucket. Bullock however never allowed a shot attempt to happen. Bullock deflected and stole a Fournier pass allowing Burks to dribble out the clock.
“Coach always talks about ‘next man up,’ and everyone that was inserted tonight had an effect on the game,” Bullock said. “It definitely was important for us to close this one out. We had two hard-fought games our last two losses, so we definitely had to pick this one up and start building while we’re back home for a [four-game] stretch and pull out a win.”
Randle finished with a triple-double for New York, his second such effort in six days. He handed out a career-high 17 assists while scoring 18 points and collecting 10 boards.
Ntilikina provided the Knicks with a huge spark. He connected on a trio of second half 3-pointers, finishing with 13 points.
“I really think Frank play a very good game all around,’’ Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s taking the right shots. And as long as he does that, we believe in the process of him working on those shots and when he’s open shoot them well, and some are going to go, some won’t. That’s part of the game. So just having the courage to continue to take them, you’re wide open.’’
Bullock concluded his night with 20 points. Burks added 21 and Barrett 17.
Fournier paced Orlando with 23 points. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic chipped in 17 apiece.
New York now gets a couple of days off to lick their wounds and get healthy. They will host Philadelphia at The Garden Sunday at 8 p.m.
(AP Photo/Adam Hunger, Pool)