Thanks to the debut of the In-Season Tournament, point differential is a phrase that has entered into the NBA’s vernacular. Teams not only needed to win to advance in the IST, they needed to win by a lot.
“I just care about winning, that’s it,” Coach Tom Thibodeau said after the Knicks faced that scenario last night at the Garden and met the challenge with a 115-91 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
With the win and their winning margin, the Knicks advanced to the quarterfinals of the IST as a Wild Card to play the Bucks who won the East Group B, either next Monday or Tuesday.
The Knicks will now have to play the Bucks four times this season but it doesn’t matter to Coach Thibodeau. “If they tell us we have to play this team five times, we’ll play them five times and be ready,” Thibodeau said. “If they say it’s eight times, it’s eight times.”
Julius Randle flexed his muscles for 25 points and a career high tying 20 rebounds and likes this idea of a tournament in late November. “It was fun. It makes the game more competitive, it keeps you engaged. Credit to the league,” Randle said on MSG TV after the game.
Immanuel Quickley scored 16 of his 23 points off the bench in the fourth quarter and wasn’t even aware of the circumstances surrounding last night’s game. “I literally was just showing up like it was a regular game but they told me we need to win by a certain amount,” Quickley said on the MSG Knicks Post Game Show.
Mitchell Robinson was a force in the middle with six pts, 10 rebounds, six blocked shots and two steals while Josh Hart scored 17 points with 6 rebounds.
R.J. Barrett, did not shoot well from the field (3 for 13) but he scored 16 points thanks to 9 of 9 from the free throw line. The Knicks had a huge advantage at the free throw line as they made 18 of 20 free throw attempts, compared to 4 of 7 for the Hornets.
Hornets rookie Brandon Miller, the second overall pick of the draft, led Charlotte with 18 points.
Knicks led wire to wire but it got agonizingly close when Charlotte got to within one, 56-55 with a little over eight minutes left in the third quarter.
After the Hornets missed two chances to take their first lead, Randle hit a driving lay up to make it 58-55. On the ensuing possession, Randle stole a pass from Miller and completed a two on one fast break with Quentin Grimes to put the Knicks up by five, 60-55 and they were never headed.
The Knicks closed the quarter on a 24-13 run to go up 80-66 after three. Jalen Brunson had an off night but scored 7 of his 12 points in the third quarter run.
Hart’s running lay up capped off a 10-0 run early in the fourth that gave the Knicks a 90-68 lead. With the Knicks needing to win by a large margin to advance in the IST, Quickley ran off 9 straight points to put the Knicks up 110-86 with a little over two minutes remaining.
The Knicks came out hot as they hit four of their first six from beyond the arc to take a 21-9 lead in the first quarter. The Knicks were moving the ball well and it led to a 29-16 advantage after one, with Randle and Barrett combining for 28 of those points.
After a Donte DiVincenzo steal led to a Hart lay up, the Knicks had a 40-27 lead with a little over seven minutes left in the second quarter. The Knicks were getting to the free throw line and had a 13-2 advantage in free throw attempts as they took a 53-44 lead at halftime.
Even though the win was in hand in the fourth quarter, the Knicks were conscious of the fact they had to win by a large margin. “Interesting concept, I understand the concept, but it’s weird when you’re in it,” Hart said.
There was some concern that having to win by a large margin could distract the team from the primary goal of securing a win, first and foremost. “I don’t want us getting lost in things that really aren’t important. Understand what is important and that’s winning,” Thibodeau said. “We’re asking everyone to make sacrifices, and put the team first, play the right way and good things will happen.”
Bottom line is the Knicks have won 8 of their last 11 and are doing it with defense and good ball movement. “Everybody on our team is playing unselfish basketball,” Quickley said. “We like to get out and run, it starts with our defense so that leads into our offense so we gotta continue to do that to scratch out wins.”