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Elfrid Payton, Julius Randle lead Knicks to victory over Trail Blazers

New York Knicks guard Elfrid Payton (6) goes

New York Knicks guard Elfrid Payton (6) goes to the basket past Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, Pool) Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

If you look at the roster, it’s debatable whether the Knicks are better than last season's 21-45 team. But as they completed one-third of the schedule Saturday afternoon, they could look at the standings and see themselves in a tie for the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

So how to explain the 110-99 win over the Portland Trail Blazers at Madison Square Garden and the 11-13 record the Knicks have managed to put together? It's not something that has anyone dreaming of a parade, but it's a far cry from the 4-20 record the Knicks had at this point last season.

The difference has been coach Tom Thibodeau, and the credit goes to an undermanned roster that has the lowest payroll in the NBA and has willingly bought into the hard-driving coach.

"Huge difference," Elfrid Payton said. "He continues to challenge us every day. He’s always on us. He almost demands perfection. We don’t always get there, but we get close. We’ve been able to carve out a few wins. He’s been good for us.

"Practice, film, timeouts, you know, he’s just on us. You think you’re doing a good job and then he wants you to be better. That’s all you can ask for, somebody to continue to push you. to demand excellence. It’s hard to win in this league. It’s not easy. And he knows that. And we’ve been able to get a few wins. It’s definitely helping us."

The sort of effort Thibodeau demands came to fruition Saturday, as the Knicks harassed the Blazers into six fourth-quarter turnovers, closed out with extra effort and blocked three three-point field- goal attempts.

It’s hard to point to defense as the difference on a day when Damian Lillard had 29 points and nine assists while hobbling around the court much of the game. But there was no three-point barrage or unstoppable scoring that carried the Blazers this time.

The Knicks were able to get the ball out of Lillard’s hands at times in the fourth quarter, which was crucial. He was 6-for-12 from three-point range and the rest of the team shot a combined 11-for-35 from beyond the arc.

In his return to New York, Carmelo Anthony shot 1-for-8, scored two points and was in the middle of a miscue that helped the Knicks open up the game in the fourth quarter.

With the Trail Blazers down by five early in the quarter, Anthony grabbed a defensive rebound. But as he came down with the ball with his elbows out, he was called for an offensive foul after connecting with Taj Gibson, who may have sold the play.

Anthony was called for a technical, which Immanuel Quickley converted. With the ball going back to the Knicks, Quickley connected on a three-point field goal and the lead was back to nine.

Alec Burks' three-pointer gave the Knicks a 104-89 lead, but with a chance to get within four, the Blazers missed five straight three-point attempts. Julius Randle then went 4-for-4 from the line to clinch it.

Randle had 22 points, 11 rebounds and four assists and Payton had 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists for the Knicks, who shot 50% from the floor. RJ Barrett added 18 points and Burks had 16.

"I don’t want us to feel too good about where we are, because right now there’s a long way to go," Thibodeau said. "I want us to feel good about the way we’re approaching things. I know if we practice well and we concentrate on our improvement and get ready for our next opponent, then we’ll have a good chance to win.

"But in this league, the one thing I do know is as soon as soon as you start feeling too good about yourself, that’s usually when you get knocked down. And that holds true for every team in the league. So I think the important thing for us is to build the proper habits each and every day. And we want to be playing our best at the end. So every day, come in, put everything you have into it and then let’s see where it goes."

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