The Knicks were up by 22 points, Madison Square Garden was in a full-throated frenzy. And Tom Thibodeau was angry.
Screaming at the officials, he was hit with a technical foul, an indication that he — and if they knew what was good for them, his team — was not about to take a foot off the gas. The Knicks stretched the lead to 27 points and ended Tuesday night with a convincing 112-99 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.
With Thibodeau breathing fire and the team doing the same, this might have been the sort of game that would fill the streets of Manhattan again with crazed fans outside celebrating if floods and gale force winds weren’t already gathering outside. But the celebration inside provided a solid approximation of the opening night celebration on Seventh Avenue.
Newcomers Kemba Walker (19 points) and Evan Fournier (18) led the offense, but it would be hard to point to a player who didn’t contribute on this night. With no Ben Simmons still, the 76ers rely on Joel Embiid and the Knicks limited him to 14 points as he was just 2-for-7 from the field.
It may be natural in an 82-game schedule to have a night like the Knicks did in Sunday’s loss to Orlando when shots didn’t fall, shoulders slumped and the effort and energy that has become a trademark of the team since Thibodeau took over just doesn’t surface.
"I was sick, man," Julius Randle said about Sunday’s loss after Tuesday’s win. "I didn’t go to sleep until like 4 o’clock in the morning. I was sick. Everybody else was sick. We let that slip. We need those games like that.
" . . . So you just respond. That’s the league. That’s the thing about good teams in this league — high-character teams. It’s OK to have adversity, it’s OK to have slip-ups. It’s how you respond."
The test for players and coach would come when they took the floor Tuesday against a team looked at as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. As well as they performed last season, the Knicks were 0-3 against Philadelphia and 0-3 against the Nets, the top two teams in the Atlantic Division and were a combined 3-12 against the top three teams in each conference. This was the Knicks’ first win over Philadelphia since April 12, 2017, ending a losing streak at 15.
But if Randle said he didn’t have it Sunday night and one by one other players explained that they, too, saw it, the test would be how they rebounded from it. And it was easy to see that the Knicks came out ready.
"Long before the ball went up tonight, I could tell we’d have a good game," Thibodeau said. "We knew we didn’t play well. We got a real group of guys — serious-minded. We were disappointed how we played. We didn’t close out that game the way we should have.
"I could tell that night, the next day, and last night the gym was packed with people working. I knew this would be a good test for us."
The first burst came from the bench with Derrick Rose spearheading a unit that outscored the Philly bench in the first half 30-10. And then came a wakeup call from Walker, who scored eight straight points when the offense looked as if it was faltering. And the Knicks finished the half by scrambling to force a 24-second violation, walking off the floor with a fist pump from their coach and a 20-point advantage.
"We didn’t bring it the other night," Walker said. "So we knew we had to come in tonight, kind of redeem ourselves. That’s how this league works. It’s going to be nights where things just aren’t going your way, but a day later you have a game, or maybe two nights later you have another one. it’s all about how you come back."
In the third quarter, the 76ers began to claw their back, cutting the deficit to 14. But Rose converted a floater in the lane and after a technical foul on Andre Drummond and a free throw Rose stole the ball and fed Randle for a fast-break layup. The Knicks needed the boost because after starting the game by hitting 15 of 23 from beyond the arc they missed 11 straight from long range, finishing 16-for-37.
The Knicks never let up this time, whether it was Walker or Rose running the offense and Mitchell Robinson or Taj Gibson anchoring the defense.
"Culture is not an accident," Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said. "We were doing it last year. We cleaned out a lot of stuff as you know on the team and all over. It’s not an accident. You have to work on it. When you have it, it allows you to get through tough times a lot easier than when you don’t have it."
"Thibs is a hell of a coach," Rivers said. "Worked with me for three years, felt like nine, I’m not sure. But he’s just good. He works his butt off. He’s in love with the game of basketball. If every player had that same passion they’d be better players. Same for coaching."