They’re only about one-fifth of the way into their season, and an extremely long and tough stretch on the road — where they generally haven’t played well this season (going 1-4) — looms, but the New York Knicks are nonetheless grateful for each other, the solid chemistry they’ve already built together, and for their belief in themselves (even in while facing adversity). And it’s often showing on the court.
Two games after suffering their worst loss of the season (by 23 points in Toronto on Friday night), the Knicks (10-7) were on the way to a similar ending against the same opponent.
Instead, they talked it over like a family, regrouped at halftime and came out with a whole new sense of purpose and a reinvigorated energy that propelled the best run of consecutive points in franchise history, which proved to be enough to hold off the Toronto Raptors, 108-100, on Thanksgiving Eve at Madison Square Garden.
In keeping with the spirit of the holiday to quickly follow, the close-knit Knicks relied on their togetherness and ever-improving cohesion to play determined, focused and energized defense during an impressing and decisive 41-10 third quarter, which started on a 32-3 run, fueled by 28 straight points over a stretch of nearly eight minutes.
The 31-point differential in the quarter is the largest in the team’s history during the shot clock era (since the 1954-55 season).
Harassed by the Knicks’ suffocating resistance, the Raptors (11-6) missed its first 13 shots over the initial 9:36 of the period and went just 1-for-16 (including 1-for-7 from behind the arc) — while committing eight turnovers — in the frame after shooting 50 percent (23-for-46), including a damaging 10-for-23 from 3-point range, while building a 59-48 halftime lead.
In sharp contrast, New York made 16 of its 24 shots in the quarter. The Knicks’ record-setting run came with the Raptors still leading 62-52, and ended with New York ahead by 18 points before the Knicks led by as many as 20 to close the quarter.
“We just challenged guys at halftime,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We were playing hard in the first half, but… we challenged [our players] to get up [defensively] and get after guys, and put pressure, and making nothing easy, and they responded in that third quarter. They were great.”
Using a 19-5 run to start the fourth quarter, the Raptors whittled its deficit to as little as six points on three different occasions in the final seven minutes, but with New York’s lead trimmed to 99-93, with 3:19 remaining, small forward Tim Hardaway, Jr. put a stamp on his terrific night (career-high 38 points, game-best seven assists, six rebounds) with a personal 7-3 run that was finished with a drive and an exclamation point dunk that put New York up 10 points while whipping the Garden crowd into a frenzy with 1:23 to play.
Hardaway, Jr. (who scored 19 points in each half) also had backing from start forward Kristaps Porzingis (22 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks) and center Enes Kanter (11 points, two blocks).
However, it was shooting guard Courtney Lee who took the challenge at halftime the most, after what might have been a Thanksgiving-esque kumbaya moment gave way to addressing the Knicks’ problems through more of a Seinfeld Festivus kind of “airing of grievances.”
“We came in and watched film,” Lee said. Coach kind of got on me and I didn’t really like what was being said. That’s what you’re supposed to do as a player, you’re supposed to respond. Not only did I respond, but everybody on the team [did]… and we played great defense in the second half. We got it corrected. We went out there and competed. It’s contagious, one person gives effort on defense and then the next man is doing it.”
After scoring just four points on three shots in 14 first-half minutes, Lee scored seven of New York’s first 11 points in the third quarter and scored 11 of his 15 in the game during the period, to go complement Hardaway, Jr.’s 12 points in the quarter, all of which came over the Knicks’ historic 28-0 spurt.
“Courtney Lee did a great job of setting the tone early [in the quarter],” Hardaway, Jr. said. “He was just playing smart and being aggressive.”
Hardaway, Jr. added that he had never, at any level, been part of a run like the Knicks put together, but he loved helping to lead it.
“That’s great,” he said, when alerted that the spurt set a team record. “It’s just a fun style of play when we’re out there just having fun, getting stops, and we’re running, not worrying about who scores the ball, just doing what we can to get the fans involved… because we feed off of their energy.”
Happy to see Hardaway, Jr. developing into a more reliable second offensive option to Porzingis (New York’s scoring leader), Hornacek said, “He’s playing great. I love his intensity… it’s all about winning. He wants to win. I think all our guys have that attitude that, ‘We’re gonna try to lay it out there. We may not with the game, but let’s lay it out there.’ It’s a great group of guys.”
Which is probably the biggest reason New York hasn’t panicked or packed it in this season when facing some larger holes to get out of.
“Not at all,” Porzingis said when asked if the Knicks viewed their halftime deficit through the prism of their loss in Toronto six nights earlier.
On the contrary, “Everybody was upset [in a motivating way],” Kanter said. “We came in [the locker room], talked, and [then] we did it with defense.”
Hardaway, Jr. said the key was, “A lot of us just coming in at halftime and letting it be known that we can’t make mistakes like that on defense. We were in foul trouble, a lot of us were tentative, including myself. [After that], we tried to do whatever we could to play smart and not lose our aggressiveness.”
To do that, however, takes a certain type of unbreakable unity that the Knicks are beginning to speak of more frequently, and more importantly back up with more consistent actions on the court.
The first part of that equation was evident in some of the players’ thoughts about what they are thankful with their team one day before America’s most unifying holiday.
Pointing to New York’s overall record — thanks to a 9-3 home mark — is so far better than what most had predicted, said, “I’m thankful for proving all the haters wrong, before adding, “and that I’m in a really good place [in New York, after playing in Utah and Oklahoma City, with] this amazing crowd and for my team’s health.”
Injured guard Ron Baker said he was most thankful for Porzingis, but also for “our team’s work ethic and for our fans that come and support us here at MSG.”
Porzingis said he’s grateful for the Knicks’ coaching staff, while adding, “I’m thankful for our spirit, in general, the atmosphere. We trust each other and that’s important. We’re a young team, we play with energy. That’s good.”
Belgian-born rookie Frank Ntilikina (seven points in 16 minutes), who played professionally in France before being drafted in June a month prior to his 19th birthday, will be celebrating his first Thanksgiving.
“It means a lot to me,” he said. “My dream was to be here in America, and being young, I was always studying about this culture and I knew about Thanksgiving, and it’s my first Thanksgiving here, so I’m really thankful for being here… to be an NBA player, to play in New York… it’s a dream come true.”
Ntilikina is already feeling comfortable thanks to the Knicks’ strong camaraderie.
“Great chemistry, great spirit, great attitude on the court and off the court,” he noted.
Meanwhile, New York’s best player on Wednesday night is just happy to be a Knick again, in a better situation than during his first time in New York, when he was the team’s first-round pick in 2013, and was inconsistent for two years before being traded to Atlanta, where he spent the next two seasons, prior to returning to New York as a free agent last offseason.
“I’m thankful to be back here,” said Hardaway, Jr. (who became the first Knick with at least 38 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in a game since Patrick Ewing in 1991). “It’s a wonderful opportunity for me. I’m happy, I’m excited [that] this group loves one another. You can see that on the floor. We’re playing for one another, the passion is there, and we’re continuing to [build] our identity. That’s what I love about this team.”
How much and for how long that will continue to carry over remains to be seen for an up-and-down team that has already split 10 games decided by at least 13 points this year.
However, for now, it’s giving the young, rebuilding Knicks increasing confidence.
Tonight shows that we can beat every team, and when I say that, I believe that,” Kanter said.
Porzingis concurred, “When it all comes together, it’s just beautiful basketball. We’re capable of beating anybody.”
Sharing that belief given the relative hopeless state of the Knicks in recent years is plenty for which to be thankful.