Whether you believe the Knicks are a bunch of feisty overachievers or real contenders, it’s hard to argue that when they took the floor at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night it was as close to a playoff game as the struggling franchise has seen in seven years.
The limited capacity crowd was loud and the bodies were falling — first Taj Gibson sidelined with a lacerated right eye lid and then Nerlens Noel taking an elbow to the face and heading straight to the locker room with a lacerated lip. Then, late in the third quarter Atlanta star Trae Young went out with a sprained left ankle.
If the high-scoring output was not going to bring back memories of some of the old Knicks playoff teams and chants of defense, it was as close as they have been to that sort of atmosphere. The Knicks survived this battle, the body count and the score, as they took a 137-127 overtime win, their eighth straight victory. The streak was the longest since March 2014 when Mike Woodson — who happened to be back in the building on celebrity row — was coaching the team. The Knicks took sole possession of fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
"We stressed that early in our shootaround, early in our walk-through, this was gonna be a playoff type atmosphere, playoff-type mentality," Immanuel Quickley said. "We wanted to be ready for that. And I feel like our guys, especially the vets that we have on our team are very physical guys. So we relish that and embrace that and I think you've seen a little bit of that today especially in overtime."
While Tom Thibodeau has preached a game at a time approach — becoming a good practice team first and then not looking ahead of the game in front of them — he knew that this game meant something more for his team. His players had spoken in recent days about watching the standings and knowing just what this game could mean.
"I think that's part of it but, again, you want the focus to be on exactly what's in front of you," Thibodeau said. "But also for them to have the understanding of this is their business, to understand the league, where you are, and why each game is so important. So we do talk about that, but to understand that what goes into winning each right. It’s important not to skip over things and look too far down the road. We know that if you take care of business today, all those other things are going to take care of themselves. So we just have to make sure we're doing the right things each and every day."
For the Knicks it was Julius Randle shouldering much of the load once again, pouring in 40 points with 11 rebounds and six assists. But in a game like this he needed help and he got it — from Quickley (20 points), from Derrick Rose (20 points) and really from anyone who was still standing by the end.
"Fourth place sounds good," Randle said. "But we're not done yet. We have a long way to go."
After turning around a seven-point deficit to start the fourth quarter the Knicks actually took a seven-point lead. But the Hawks fought back, trying the score before Randle gave the Knicks the lead again with a short jumper with 1:14 left. Rose fouled out with 27.9 seconds left, sending Brandon Goodwin to the line. But he missed his first attempt, then made the second to cut the gap to one.
The Knicks ran the clock down and Randle drove the right side past Collins, scoring with his right hand with 8.4 seconds left. But Bogdan Bogdanovic hit a quick three-pointer in the corner, tying the score once again with 6.2 seconds to play. Randle got the ball in his hands but missed a tough turnaround jumper as time expired to send the game to overtime.
But in the extra session the Knicks came out firing. Quickley scored on floater and Randle and Reggie Bullock followed with three-pointers and it was an eight-point advantage with 3:16 left. Even in this hard-fought game the Knicks were flying around defensively in the extra session. When RJ Barrett converted a tough shot to beat the clock with 1:12 left for a seven-point lead, he drew an offensive foul on the other end. Quickley then buried another three and the celebration was on.
Losing Young for a Hawks team already without Danilo Gallinari, DeAndre Hunder and Cam Reddish was a severe blow. The Hawks explosive point guard had already piled up 29 points and 14 assists when he was sidelined with 1:13 left in the third quarter.
Randle then put the Knicks ahead with a pair of free throws as the now-familiar chants of MVP rained down. With 5:55 to play that lead marked the first time the Knicks were in front since the second quarter. By this time it was advisable to keep one on the scoreboard and another on the trainers as bodies continued to fall. Rose was called for his fifth foul and went limping to the sideline.
Capela missed a pair of free throws, and after a pair of Randle free throws Rose delivered a three-pointer, pushing the lead to 116-109. Like the Knicks though, the Hawks didn’t get to this point by giving up, and they cut the gap to three and then a John Collins three-pointer tied the score at 118-118 with just over two minutes left.