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Knicks cruise to big win over Bucks for first victory under Tom Thibodeau

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks looks

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks looks on during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in New York.  Credit: AP/Mike Strobe

After the Knicks absorbed a one-sided defeat at the hands of the 76ers on Saturday night, a large contingent of the team’s young players went back on the Madison Square Garden court to work out. Then Elfrid Payton appeared, heading to the other end of the court to shoot by himself.

He had endured a scoreless night, missing all six of his field- goal attempts, and handed out just one assist. If the Garden hadn’t been nearly empty, with no fans allowed in, the calls likely would have been renewed to yank Payton from the starting lineup, the rotation and maybe even New York.

Whether it was the extra work, the law of averages or just the sort of night that makes predicting the sport defy any analytical model, Payton returned to the court Sunday night and had 27 points and seven assists in the Knicks’ 130-110 upset of the Bucks. It was the first win of the Tom Thibodeau era and almost certainly was Payton’s best night in his two Knicks seasons.

"I shoot at night all the time," he said. "I guess it’s a little different on game days. We usually have practice the next morning back in Westchester, but we were staying in the city, so it wasn’t that long of a drive. So an opportunity to get more work."

"Elfrid’s a good pro," Thibodeau said. "He’s been coming in extra, just working on his game, and you don’t really have to say anything to him other than we talk to him every day what the game plan is, what our expectations are, try to prepare him as best we can for each game.

"He’s learning a new system, he’s got new teammates. That’s what you love about him. He comes in, he gives you what he has and he knows how to bounce back. In this league, you have to have that ability.’’

Payton’s 27 points were the most he has scored as a Knick. He went 3-for-3 from beyond the arc, an unlikely development after he hit only 14 three-pointers all last season.

On a night when the Knicks could have been exhausted, playing their first back-to-back set of games in a season with a shortened period of preparation, they put together their first 48- minute effort against a team forecast to be among the NBA’s best.

"We knew they were going to come out with aggression," said Julius Randle (27 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists). "That’s the first thing we talked about at halftime. That’s exactly what they did, came out with aggression. Hit a three, but how we responded to it — stayed together. Two turnovers to start the half, offensive foul that we don’t know if it was or not, but we stayed together and just kept at it."

The first two games had presented a hard lesson for the Knicks, the fourth-youngest team in the NBA this season, a team without a single player who has reached the age of 30. With a new coaching staff and a young team, the Knicks have run an early gantlet, and it showed on the scoreboard with a 14-point loss in Indiana on Wednesday and a 20-point loss in the home opener Saturday.

"We got a really good group of players," Thibodeau said. "We have younger players who want to get better and they’re putting a lot of time in. I see it all the time at the practice facility. Guys are coming back to work on their game and studying film. They’re getting treatment. They’re doing a lot of things that are very positive. I told them that today.

"We’re not quite there yet, but we will be at some point. As long as we’re putting the proper amount of work in every day, the improvement will come.’’ 

Notes & quotes: Alec Burks had 18 points off the bench for the Knicks and shot 4-for-5 from three-point range. Burks, Payton and Frank Ntilikina were a combined 11-for-12 from outside the arc as the Knicks went 16-for-27 . . . Giannis Antetokounmpo had 27 points,13 rebounds, five assists and three steals for the Bucks. Khris Middleton added 22 points and former Knick Bobby Portis had 17. The Bucks were 5-for-35 from three-point range before emptying the bench and finished 7-for-38.

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