Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma loses the ball next to Knicks forward Julius...

Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma loses the ball next to Knicks forward Julius Randle during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday in Washington. Credit: AP/Nick Wass

DETROIT — It was just over two weeks ago that the Knicks had lost five straight games as they prepared to finish off a three-game Texas trip in Houston. They could make excuses if they wanted. Jalen Brunson had missed the previous two games with a hip injury and RJ Barrett was sidelined, too. But coach Tom Thibodeau pointed the finger in another direction.

Defense. And he let the team know it, pointing out the deficiencies, individually and collectively.

Is it a coincidence that the Knicks have won six of seven games beginning that night?

They rank third in that span in defensive rating, behind only Memphis and the Nets, but it’s not just numbers. Effort has been the key.

“I think really since the Houston game maybe, Coach, he got on us to really lock in defensively,” Julius Randle said. “And I took it personally because I felt like I wasn’t necessarily playing my best defense for those past couple of games, whatever it was. I took it personally and we all did as a team. It’s another thing, you see things working, you’re in the right spots, and we have that trust, we’re on a string on that end. It’s encouraging.”

Defense has become a focus of the team, not surprising for a Thibodeau-coached team. When the Knicks’ struggles were putting pressure on the coach earlier this season, he shifted the rotation, inserting Quentin Grimes into the starting lineup, adding Miles McBride off the bench and burying Cam Reddish, Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose.

“I think we talked about it from the start of the season,” Thibodeau said. “And even though we felt we could do a lot better. But all the markers from the beginning of the season were there, the field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, points in the paint, the rebound margin, that was there. So I knew OK, that’s going to be our foundation. That was pretty clear, and it’s gotten better as the season’s gone along, too.

“So I think the more time together for everyone, everyone understands they’re good. It’s very difficult to guard guys individually in this league. So you need everyone tied together. We always say, there’s five guys guarding the ball. And if we do that and we keep the ball out of the paint, we know our chances of having success on the defensive end are going to be good.”

For Randle, it was the effort that has been a noticeable upgrade on that end of the court. In December he was an offensive force, but as he has cooled off and Brunson has picked up the slack offensively, Randle has turned to other aspects of the game.

Randle has grabbed 16 rebounds in each of the last three games, and on Friday, he swatted Delon Wright’s fast- break layup into the stands. Earlier this month, he opened eyes by chasing down San Antonio’s Josh Richardson to block a fast-break layup.

“Yeah, whatever it is the team needs from me to do as far as making plays,” Randle said. “It doesn’t always have to be scoring. It can be a block, it can be a steal or just being in the right place defensively. We’re all doing the little things that add up to wins.”

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