When Mitchell Robinson was ruled out for the season in early December, the Knicks were hoping Isaiah Hartenstein could be a competent fill in. Hartenstein has been more than competent. In fact, he’s been absolutely fabulous.
Julius Randle continued his torrid play as he led the Knicks with 35 points, Jalen Brunson bounced back from Monday’s off game with 31 points and 13 assists, but Hartenstein was the man with a career high 20 rebounds, five blocks and 10 points to key the Knicks 116-100 win over the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden last night.
With the seven footer, Hartenstein manning the middle, the Knicks outrebounded the Bulls 52-39 and had a 54-36 advantage in points in the paint.
DeMar DeRozan scored 28 points while Coby White added 26 for a Chicago team that came in off a blowout in Philly the night before, but thanks to 13 turnovers, the Knicks were trailing 55-51 at halftime.
“They’re [Bulls] very good at turning people over, real active,” Coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Steal strip team. I thought we were trying to hit the needle. Once we got off the ball earlier, second half, much better. Just hitting the first open man and letting that guy make a play.”
Only three more turnovers the rest of the way and the Knicks outscored the Bulls, 65-45 in the second half to take care of business against a team that they should beat by double digits.
“We’ve been doing a lot better job of just communicating and playing team defense. That’s the biggest thing in the NBA, you can’t really guard the guy with one guy, you have to guard him with the team,” said Hartenstein, who has started the last eight games.
After getting into foul trouble in the first half, O.G. Anunoby made his presence felt in the second half (8 of his 11pts, 6 of his 8 rebounds) as the Knicks have won two in a row with him in the lineup.
“I feel like he’s [Anunoby] been doing a good job of just moving without the ball making the litte plays that make a big difference,” said Hartenstein, who, like the team, has liked what he’s seen from his new teammate. “Defensively, he makes my job at lot easier, the way he fights over screens, gets deflections, I think it’s something special and I’m excited to keep building on that.”
Knicks were 15 for 38 from three and shot 52% overall. The Bulls shot 47% in the first half, but the Knicks defense tightened up and held Chicago to 36% shooting in the final two quarters.
Brunson’s three capped off a 10-2 Knicks run early in the third quarter as they took a five point lead, 64-59. After Randle’s steal and driving hook put the Knicks up by four, Hartenstein followed with a emphatic block of Patrick Williams’ shot that launched a fast break. Randle, who scored 20+ plus for a 19th straight game, hit a driving lay up to give him 11 points in the quarter and a 75-69 Knicks’ lead with 4:42 left.
Hartenstein’s play has helped take some of the pressure off defensively in Robinson’s absence and his blocks triggered some pretty fast breaks. “Playing really, really well,” said Thibodeau who has to be relieved at what he’s seeing from the 25-year old.
After Hartenstein denied Ayo Dosunmu’s lay up with another blocked shot, Quentin Grimes’ lay up on the other end gave the Knicks an 84-76 lead.
In the fourth, Andre Drummond’s lay up cut the lead to 93-91, but the Knicks took charge from there.
A Brunson floater and a Randle dunk made it 97-91, when the Knicks demoralized the Bulls with a sequence that brought the crowd to its feet.
First, Brunson missed a three but Hartenstein grabbed his 17th rebound. Hart missed a trey and Anunoby got the offensive rebound. After Randle missed from three, Anunoby got the offensive rebound and scored on a putback dunk that gave the Knicks a 99-91 lead with under seven minutes left as the Garden crowd went wild.
Brunson’s step back jumper capped off a 19-4 run to give the Knicks a 112-95 lead with under three minutes left. “We were trying to do too much and thread the needle instead of like, just keep it simple,” said Thibodeau. “Hit the first open man, make the second pass and now you’re putting them in long close outs and now there’s going to be easy opportunities.”
Thibodeau rolled the dice once again as the Knicks led by 16 with under two minutes left, but the entire starting unit was still on the floor. “If they have to play more, they’ll play more,” Thibodeau said. “I have confidence in the guys that we have. I think we just need a little bit of time.”
The Knicks opened the game on a 7-0 run, but eight first quarter turnovers allowed a short handed Chicago team (Zach Levine missed the game) to hang around and it was only a 26-24 lead after one.
Chicago had a hot second quarter as they shot 48% and combined with the turnovers, had the lead at halftime but the Knicks picked up their game in the second half and are now 19-15, 10-4 at home.