RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks drives to...

RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks drives to the basket during the second half of the game against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center on December 09, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Credit: Getty Images/David Jensen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Early in the fourth quarter, with the Knicks already on their way to a one-sided win, Miles McBride stole an inbounds pass and flipped to RJ Barrett, who passed to Isaiah Hartenstein. It went back to Barrett for a layup, forcing Hornets coach Steve Clifford to call time. 

As the Knicks came off the floor, there was an unusual sight:  coach Tom Thibodeau nearly out to center court, offering handshakes and high-fives. On this night, even the business-minded coach could not resist as the team shook off the question of how it would adjust to the absence of Obi Toppin.

The answer was by playing the same hard-nosed defense it had in the two previous games. The Knicks moved to 13-13 with their third straight victory,  a 121-102 win over Charlotte at the Spectrum Center.

“Hey, man, that’s a sign you’re doing something good,” Barrett said of Thibodeau’s enthusiasm. “We need some more of that.”

“I love plays like that,” Thibodeau said. “When a guy makes a big-time effort play like that, those things do nothing but unite and inspire the team. If you can’t get excited about those type of plays, you can’t get excited about anything. They’re giving their bodies up. It’s great hustle. That’s the thing that you love about [McBride] — he never quits on a play. He deflected, dove, he did so many things on the play, big-time multiple effort. Then to finish the play off. And we had several plays that were similar. You get excited about that. That gives the team energy. The more plays you get like that, the better it is for the team.”

With their usual boost from Obi Toppin missing — the reserve forward is sidelined with a non-displaced fracture of the right fibula — it was an infusion of energy that the Knicks welcomed. 

Julius Randle, who usually gets a breather with Toppin in, had 33 points in 35:33.  Barrett, tasked with adding some minutes at power forward, responded by powering into the paint time after time and contributing 26 points in 34:55.  Seven Knicks scored in double figures, and with about two minutes left, Thibodeau finally cleared the bench and gave the starters a breather.

The Knicks have allowed 90.7 points per game and 20-for-97 shooting from three-point range in the last three games.

Friday night's game represented the first opportunity for the Knicks to indicate how they will handle the absence of Toppin, who was injured Wednesday in the win over Atlanta. The changes were additional time for Barrett and Randle along with Jericho Sims entering the rotation as the ninth man, pairing with Hartenstein at times.

But the most important change might be the play of second-year players McBride and Quentin Grimes, who have solidified the perimeter defense with their hustle and hard work.

“You see it,” Barrett said. “Playing aggressive the whole entire game. They’ve had a lot to do with it.”

“I think we're just playing hard and that's really it,” Grimes said. “Just playing hard, covering for people's mistakes, not worrying if someone gets scored on. We'll get a stop the next time. Right now we're just playing extremely hard, not worrying about the result, because we know if we play hard, everything will take care of itself.”

A 13-point lead early in the third quarter quickly was cut to five, but the Knicks got it back to 18 by the end of the quarter and up to as many as 26 in the fourth quarter. The loss of Toppin may have removed some of the energy infusion that he provides, but with Sims taking some of the minutes and the Knicks continuing to focus on defense, it more than made up for what was missing.

“It’s been great,” Randle said. “That’s really why we’re winning games. We’ve had no trouble scoring points all year, but the more our defense locks in and plays like that, the more we’ll have chances to win games and go on streaks.”

“I liked our defense,” Thibodeau said. “Rebounding was good, taking care of the ball was good, getting to the line. I thought Julius played a monster game. RJ got going. I thought our bench gave us great minutes. Quentin and Deuce gave us great defense. I liked the size of Isaiah and Jericho together. Everyone stepped up and played well.”