As the Knicks took the floor Thursday night in San Francisco, it was clear that they were not facing the champion Golden State squads from just a few years ago. But maybe more important, these are not the same Knicks that were seen in recent years.
If Golden State doesn’t have the championship pedigree this year, with Klay Thompson sidelined for the entire season (and particularly on this night, when they lost Draymond Green to a pair of technical fouls), the Knicks were as advertised — and they started a four-game West Coast road trip with an impressive 119-104 victory.
It’s small steps for the Knicks, but their third straight victory evened their record at 8-8.
"It means we got a lot of work to do," Tom Thibodeau said. "We can’t feel good, we got to keep working. It’s a long season. You’ve got to go step by step. And as I said, there are some things we’ve done well. We’ve had some good wins. But we’ve also had some games where we could’ve played a lot better in. So we have to be honest with ourselves and know there’s a lot of work to be done and we’re capable of improving and doing a lot better. So that’s our challenge. As I’ve mentioned before, I love the way our guys work and I think we’ll continue to get better."
RJ Barrett had a career-high 28 points (20 in the first half) along with five assists for the Knicks, who scored 40 points in the first quarter. Mitchell Robinson had 18 points and eight rebounds and Julius Randle added 16 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists. Elfrid Payton scored 15 points and Reggie Bullock had 12.
Alec Burks made his first appearance since Dec. 27 after missing 12 games with a sprained ankle. He had 11 points and six rebounds in 31 minutes off the bench. Nerlens Noel added 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in 20 minutes off the bench.
If Thibodeau didn’t want to take a bow, his counterpart did it for him.
"He’s done a great job. It’s a typical Thibs team," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said before the game. "They’re defending and keeping themselves in games night in and night out. They’ve got some really good wins on the year.
"One night you’ll watch them and they won’t make any shots and you’ll wonder, ‘How the hell are they .500?’ Then you see them the next night and they beat a really good team because they’re defending like crazy and they’re executing and they’re taking care of the ball.
"It’s a team that is clearly building a foundation. Thibs is doing a great job of that. He’s got an interesting mix of players. A lot of veterans and a couple of projects and then a really talented young guy in Obi Toppin, who obviously hasn’t played a whole lot. I think all in all, when you look at their record, Thibs has done a brilliant job."
With the Knicks leading 60-55 and 1:04 remaining in the first half, Green was ejected with a second technical — although it appeared he was urging on his own teammate, rookie James Wiseman, rather than arguing as he shouted while heading back on defense. With that, Golden State lost the fulcrum that its offense revolves around.
"They’re definitely a different team," Randle said. "But they’re still a dangerous team with very good players on their team. They play a little bit different style of basketball just because their personnel is different. Like I said, they still have really good players and compete at a very high level every night."
Steph Curry, who entered the game eight three-point field goals short of moving into a tie with Reggie Miller for second place in NBA history, scored 30 points for Golden State. He had his moments, scoring 11 points in a two-minute span in the first quarter, as the Knicks threw bodies at him throughout the night. He shot only 9-for-19, including 5-for-14 from beyond the arc, and turned the ball over four times.
Andrew Wiggins added 17 points for Golden State.
The Knicks led by 11 points early, saw the lead disappear and then recovered and expanded it, leading by as many as 19 points in the fourth quarter. They entered the night as the NBA’s No. 1 team in points allowed and did nothing on this night that didn’t back up that ranking.
While the numbers were impressive, Thibodeau saw something else — a rising confidence in his young team as it took the hits and then pulled away.
"I’ve said this from the beginning, I love our young guys, particularly with their attitude and their approach," he said. "Every day they come in with a lot of energy. Some days we make mistakes, but the next day there’s a determination to correct mistakes and get better. If we do that each and every day, we’ll continue to grow. That’s what I love about them. Our vets are doing a great job. It’s a total team effort. Even the guys that aren’t in the rotation right now have been phenomenal in practice, and I think the quality of practice is critical for our development.’’