With the Chicago Bulls (19-21) coming to town, the focus at Madison Square Garden was on point guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah, and whether their former team could get revenge on that duo and their new club from earlier this year.
But as some key pieces were sitting out on either side, it was two reserves — 27-year-old rookie forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas and center Kyle O’Quinn — who were the difference in complementing Rose, Noah and star forward Carmelo Anthony, while the New York Knicks (18-22) uncharacteristically defended the 3-point line extremely well in a much-needed 104-89 victory on Thursday night.
Two games before the mid-point of their season, Rose and Noah had been suffering through the disappointing reality of something other than what each had imagined when they each left the Bulls and joined the Knicks last summer.
After starting a promising 14-10 (including a 13-point win in Chicago in New York’s fifth game of the season, with Rose and Noah both playing prominent roles in the victory), the Knicks were freefalling through a miserable 3-12 stretch which ended with New York losing nine of 10 games before hosting the Bulls.
That period culminated one night earlier, when the lowly Philadelphia 76ers (who had lost 78 straight games when trailing by at least 15 points) rallied from 17 points down, while overcoming a 10-point deficit in the final 2½ minutes to stun the Knicks on a buzzer-beater at home.
It wasn’t enough to make Rose and Noah question why they ever left the Windy City for the Mecca of Basketball, but the losing had begun to take its toll on Rose (the NBA’s MVP six seasons ago), Noah (the league’s Defensive Player of the Year three years ago) and the rest of the Knicks.
Rose had even caused a major stir by suddenly going AWOL, travelling back home to his native Chicago, skipping New York’s home loss to Milwaukee on Monday night, without informing anyone in his new organization of his whereabouts.
As all of that piled up and was already weighing heavily on the Knicks’ minds, it was announced shortly before tipoff that budding second-year talent, forward Kristaps Porzingis — who had just returned for four games following three missed contests with a sore Achilles tendon — would be out indefinitely with the same issue flaring up again.
However, on at least one night, New York provided some answers to all of those concerns while taking advantage of the Bulls being without both of its starting forwards, including their best player, forward Jimmy Butler, along with Nikola Mirotic.
Overcoming a poor 2-for-7 start from the floor, Anthony had one of his best all-around games of the season, making eight of his final 12 shots to finish with a game-high 23 points, while posting nine rebounds and a team-best six assists.
Meanwhile, Rose added 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting and Noah recorded his fifth double-double of the season, scoring 12 points (on 6-of-10 shooting) while grabbing game-highs 15 rebounds and nine offensive boards (matching the Bulls’ team-high in total rebounds by forward Taj Gibson).
But all of that might not have still been insufficient to end a pair of losing streaks, three games overall and four straight at home for New York.
Not without the huge contributions of Kuzminskas (who scored a career-best 19 points in a career-most 30 minutes) and O’Quinn (who equaled Noah’s 12 points while pulling down only four fewer rebounds and blocking a game-high four shots in 17 ultra-productive minutes), along with the Knicks’ defense (who have often been beaten badly from behind the arc this season) limiting the Bulls to just 16.7 percent (3-for-18) 3-point shooting.
“Obviously, without [Porzingis], (forward) Lance (Thomas)[was good on] defense and we needed something offensively from Kuz,” said head coach Jeff Hornacek of Kuzminskas. “He cuts, the guys found him [and] he’s active. He just hustles. He’s always smiling and I think the guys really get a kick out of when he plays well and it helps us out.”
Praising O’Quinn as well, Hornacek added, “He’s got long arms. He may not be a high flyer, but he’s got great timing. He’s rolling hard to the basket, he’s not settling for jumpers… when Kyle’s making shots like that, it puts another weapon out there at the 5 spot.”
Adding of Kuzminskas, Anthony said, “Kuz can play. He’s a crafty guy, he can score the ball and tonight was big night for him, for him to take over those minutes, and when his number (an unusually high uniform No. 91) was called, he delivered.”
The play of Kuzminskas and O’Quinn (and other reserves) wasn’t lost on Rose, who said, “I think the bench came out and played well… they moved the ball well [and] played with a lot of confidence.”
A tough cover because he’s often moving on the court, Kuzminskas said, “I’m here just to bring energy, to move without the ball and to help the team win in that way.”
Playing overseas before coming to New York, Kuzminskas received the fourth-most time of any Knick in the game. He was happy to have Hornacek’s faith in him, even though he’d rather see Porzingis healthy and playing again.
“I would like the [whole] team to be healthy [every] game,” he said. “I’m happy today, Coach trusted me and I got more minutes.”
Having already become a fan favorite, the likeable Lithuanian had been hearing “Kuuuuz!” chants at the Garden this season, but they were much louder and occurred often as Kuzminskas rose up to shoot against Chicago.
“I hear everything,” Kuzminskas said, laughing. “I hear good things, I hear bad things. I tried to concentrate on the game, but I have two ears and I hear everything.”
Recalling his pre-NBA playing days, Kuzminskas added, “Usually, I have a really good connection with the players and the crowd. I’m happy that in New York, it’s like that because the first time [they chanted “Kuuuuz!”], I thought they were booing me.”
The MSG crowd also cheered Rose, forgiving him for his abrupt disappearing act earlier in the week.
How the fans would react to that wasn’t a concern for Rose, however.
“That never came to my mind,” he said. “If they did boo me tonight, it’s no hard feelings. I know they’re very passionate about their sports. I said [I was] sorry to my team. I apologized and that was something that will never happen again.”
Capturing the consensus of Rose’s teammates about the incident, Noah said Knicks players were simply happy to learn that Rose was not in danger.
“Your teammates are your family,” Noah said. “We spend more time with our teammates than we do with our own families, so when we didn’t hear anything from him before the game, everybody was just really worried about him… when we found out he was alright, we were relieved.”
When the attention shifted to playing the Bulls, Noah admitted slightly more satisfaction in beating his ex-team than Rose did, while all of the Knicks and Hornacek noted how important it was for their team to get back on track.
“It was [just] the next game,” Rose said of facing Chicago. “We were desperate to win and I’m just happy that we got the win.
“I think the first game (in Chicago, on Nov. 4), more than this game tonight, I think I was way more nervous. I was just getting acclimated to playing in [a Knicks] uniform and now, [playing against the Bulls] is just like [playing against] any other team.”
Noah said, “We had to bounce back [and] we haven’t been great on back-to-backs. To [get] a win like that, especially against the Bulls, it feels good.”
As Noah alluded to, finally winning the second game of a back-to-back for the first time in eight tries this season, likely felt even better.
“We showed ourselves and everybody else that we can [win the second game of a] back-to-back,” Kuzminskas said, before admitting how much New York needed to stop its struggles and simply get another win of any kind.
“I can’t describe in words how much we needed to win,” he said. “It was a lot of pressure. Not only from outside, but we were putting pressure on ourselves because we know that we are better than that. Some of the games, we didn’t fight enough. Tonight, the effort was good.”
Hornacek said what he was most proud of was, “Probably that the guys didn’t hang their heads after last night’s loss… they battled the whole time.”
Anthony added, “It was a big win for us, to be able to put that game behind us from last night and step up to the challenge tonight, and take care of business.”
Pointing to using the disappointment in Philadelphia as motivation the next night, Noah said, “We came in with the right mindset tonight. Yesterday was a tough loss. Everybody was a little bit embarrassed… we fought hard… we showed some resiliency.”
Rose believed the victory could have much longer-lasting effects.
“It’s huge,” he said. “You never know where this can take us. I think that everybody’s really happy we got the monkey off our back but we’ve got to continue to play hard and give an effort like we want to win.
“We’re working on this, we’re trying to improve on it every day. Everybody’s trying to take it upon themselves to come in and be a professional and do what they have to do to come out and try to perform well.”
That effort must start with the Knicks’ biggest weakness — their defense, which turned New York’s slim three-point halftime lead into an 11-point edge going into the final quarter by clamping down on Chicago during a third quarter in which the Knicks outscored the Bulls, 22-14.
“We had a good focus coming into tonight’s game,” Anthony said. “Defensively, we were into it. Guys were talking, we stuck to our game plan and it worked tonight.
“We know we can do it, it’s just a matter of doing it. Sometimes, we wait too long to start playing defense… and tonight, we didn’t. We started from the jump and we didn’t let the fact that we played last night, the way that we lost last night, affect us tonight.”
Kuzminskas added, “It’s easier to get points [when our defense is good]. We can run fast breaks, we can get some easy points. Everything starts at the defensive end.”
For now, Hornacek prefers not to dig up the past as a learning tool in order to keep his team playing well for a lot longer than only one game.
That was the case even when New York was in a similar position as the night before, leading Chicago by 10 points with under three minutes to play.
“There was no mention of, ‘Hey, past games, we’ve let it slip away,” Hornacek said. “We try to move forward [and] not bring up those bad memories, and it was good for them to get a win.
“You always kind of think you can go back to the old stuff and use it as a lesson and say, ‘Look what happened here, let’s not do that,’ but that’s trending toward the negative part of it and that might get in their heads.”
When it comes to keeping Anthony (and perhaps some of his teammates) positive, Hornacek’s approach seems to be working, especially in a muddled Eastern Conference, where the Knicks pulled within one game of the Bulls for ninth place, within two games of the final playoff spot and just a half-game more from the five seed.
“We worked too hard as a team to be together, and gel together and bond together, to let a losing some games be a distraction to what we’re trying to do,” Anthony insisted. “We’re [only 2½] games out of fifth place in the East. When you look at it from that perspective, we’re very optimistic about what we can do.
“I’m the most positive person you’ll ever meet. I’m always optimistic, regardless of the situation. I feel good about what we can do and what we can accomplish right now.”
Of course, New York still has a lot of work to do to make their fans and many others share that same level of confidence. But the first step was to stop the bleeding. And at least for one key game, the Knicks did that much.