Having arrived in Detroit in the early hours of Sunday morning after a hard-fought win the night before, the Knicks took the court at Little Caesars Arena on Sunday night and looked every bit the tired team they had to be, playing in a nearly empty arena against an also-ran opponent.
In the third quarter, the wake-up call came — and the Knicks suddenly looked like the sort of team that maybe doesn’t seem out of place climbing up the Eastern Conference standings.
The defense, which has become an every-night trademark under Tom Thibodeau, was there all night, working hard to shut down the limited Pistons. The offense then joined in during a 35-point third quarter, and the Knicks coasted to a 109-90 win.
This is the Tao of Thibodeau — no excuses, no games off, no looking back, ahead or at the standings.
Suddenly the indefatigable Julius Randle was raining in three-point field goals, then swinging a pass into the lane to Derrick Rose, who caught it and in one motion bulleted a pass to Nerlens Noel for a dunk. The lead stretched to as many as 24 points as the Knicks ignored the opponent, the back-to-back games and the score and just kept pushing forward.
"I think that’s the nature of the league," Thibodeau said. "Sometimes the schedule is in your favor, sometimes it’s against. The challenge is to be ready whenever you have to go. So back-to-back, travel, you get in late, the ball goes up, let’s be ready to roll. Just find a way to get it done. That’s what we did.
"That’s the type of mental toughness you need. You need physical toughness. You play a team like this that’s very aggressive, you have to match that intensity. And then emotionally tough as well to get through the ups and downs of the game. I think we’re getting stronger and stronger. The challenges will keep coming. We have a lot to work on and a lot to improve upon."
The Knicks’ third straight victory and seventh in nine games moved them into sole possession of the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and pushed them to 18-17. That record may not cause any concern for the championship contenders, but for the long-struggling franchise, it marked a milestone.
The last time the Knicks were above .500 this far into a season was 2012-13, when Carmelo Anthony and Jason Kidd led the team to 54 wins and a playoff series victory. The Knicks finished the month at 9-5 — their first winning month since November 2017.
Randle, polishing his All-Star resume, led the Knicks with 25 points (17 of them in the second half), eight rebounds and six assists. RJ Barrett added 21 points. Noel had eight points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and three steals in nearly 40 minutes after playing 41 on Saturday.
Rose, starting for the injured Elfrid Payton, had 14 points and five assists, outdueling Dennis Smith Jr., the player he was traded for earlier this month.
"Our just whole M.O. is by any means, we’ve got to get the game," said Randle, whose team held the Pistons to 37 points in the first half. "That’s really what it was. We weren’t leaving without a win. It was really just whatever it took to get a win. Thankfully, we were locked in from the beginning and never really gave them a chance."
With the Knicks, Smith could not crack the rotation, a situation that had become pressing enough that he opted to head down to the G League bubble to find his way. After appearing in only three games for the Knicks and totaling less than 30 minutes of playing time, he has found not only a role but a starting role with Detroit.
He has played nine games for the Pistons, started the last five games and performed well, including a 17-point, six-assist, zero-turnover effort in his previous game against Sacramento. He shot 3-for-11 on Sunday night, finishing with seven points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Notes & quotes: Payton remains day-to-day. He is traveling with the team and receiving treatment. Taj Gibson, who has a sprained left ankle, also is listed as day-to-day . . . Asked if he would like to see the team obtain center help with Gibson out and Mitchell Robinson sidelined with a fractured right hand, Thibodeau said: "That’s a Leon [Rose] question. We have more than enough on the roster, so we’ll figure out a way."