Jonathan Bender walked onto an NBA court for the first time since Nov. 5, 2005, in the first quarter of Friday night's Knicks-Clippers game at Madison Square Garden.
For the Knicks, already trailing by 18 points, it was a needed sign of hope.
Bender hit his first two shots - a drive and a three-pointer on consecutive possessions - and finished his first seven minutes of NBA action in four years with five points, a block and a flagrant foul. Even clocking Eric Gordon for the first flagrant of his career must have felt good to the 28-year-old former lottery pick.
"I think you can see and hope what he can bring us," coach Mike D'Antoni said.
But the Knicks need wins as much as they need inspiration. Bender contributed to that, too, hitting the fourth-quarter free throws that gave the Knicks their first lead of the night in a stirring 95-91 win.
The Knicks trailed by 20 in the second quarter but tied it at the end of the third behind Lee and surprise starter Danilo Gallinari (14 points). "This game was a must-have for us and we treated it as such," Lee said. "It was a big-time victory for us."
Gallinari (10 points in the third quarter) and Lee (13) led a Knicks revival as they outscored the Clippers 30-14 to erase a 16-point halftime deficit. Lee's finger roll just before quarter's end tied the score at 72.
With the score tied at 74 early in the fourth, Bender gave the Knicks their first lead when he hit a pair of free throws. He finished with nine points in 14 minutes. Signed to a non-guaranteed contract last week, the 7-footer was the fifth overall pick in the 1999 draft but hasn't played a full season since 2001-'02 because of chronic knee problems.
"I'm just working on keeping walking for the rest of my life," Bender said. "It felt good."
The Knicks had a 90-88 advantage in a back-and-forth fourth when Davis gave the Clippers the lead with a three-pointer with 36.2 seconds left. Lee tipped in his own miss to put the Knicks ahead for good at 92-91.
"I was just surprised the ball went in, to be honest with you," Lee said. "I was kind of backwards when I tipped it."
Gallinari picked up a charge against the Clippers' Al Thornton before Chris Duhon (17 points, 10 assists) hit one free throw for a two-point Knicks lead. Rasual Butler then hit the front rim on a three-point attempt, and Duhon grabbed the rebound and sank a pair of free throws to settle matters.
After 16 straight first-quarter points by the Clippers, Bender made an immediate impact when he came into the game to polite applause with the Knicks trailing 26-8. He drove for a bucket and then hit a three-pointer from the corner. The flagrant and a block followed.
"I was real excited and had all that adrenaline going on," Bender said. "I just wanted to go out there and do good."