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RJ Barrett puts up career-high 27 points, Knicks score 143 points in dominant win over Hawks

Knicks guard RJ Barrett dunks against the Atlanta

Knicks guard RJ Barrett dunks against the Atlanta Hawks during the first half at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Break up the Knicks? Well, that might have been on the table before Tuesday night, but for one night at least it had a different meaning than what the team had drifted through for the first 24 games. 

After a 4-20 start and a coaching change, the Knicks returned to Madison Square Garden as close to rolling as they have been all season, off a 2-2 West Coast trip and actually talking about momentum, which seemed like they might be getting ahead of themselves.

It was a tenuous time for them when they last appeared at the Garden. David Fizdale was let go as head coach and replaced by interim coach Mike Miller, who barely had time to get into the seat before they lost a game at home and headed out on the road for nine days, the sort of trip that often breaks teams far more accomplished than this one. So how would they be received and what would they have to show back home?

Late in the first quarter, caught in what for the first 10 minutes had been a back-and-forth game between two teams, it seemed as if they were each playing to their 6-21 records. But then, with a spark provided by Dennis Smith Jr. and then carried forward by nearly every player on the roster, the Knicks embarked on a 21-0 run and never looked back, running away with a 143-120 win over the Atlanta Hawks.

The Knicks scored the last 13 points of the first quarter to give them a season-best 41 and by halftime they’d poured in 77 points. And unlike so many other nights when a good quarter was followed by an unsettling letdown, the Knicks never let up, finishing with 143 points — the most scored by the franchise in regulation since Nov. 11, 1980.

Once the Knicks got started on this night they dominated, getting production from up and down the lineup. RJ Barrett had a career-high 27 points, shooting 10-for-13; Marcus Morris had 22 points and Julius Randle added 17 points and 11 rebounds. Off the bench, Mitchell Robinson had 22 points — also a career high — and 13 rebounds and Kevin Knox added 17 points. Trae Young led the Hawks with 42 points.

The Knicks shot 55.8 percent from the field, the first time they shot better than 50 percent this season.

While the players may have gotten it done, Miller certainly set a tone. Leading by 31 in the third quarter he challenged — and won — a foul call on Elfrid Payton. And when the lead was cut to 23 with 4:39 left, Miller called a quick timeout and inserted Barrett back into the game, taking no chances.

“It’s something we’ve been working on,” Barrett said. “Remember at the beginning of the season I kept saying, playing all 48. I think we did that tonight. Just continue to learn how to play the whole game.”

"I’m really, really happy for our team and the way they play and the way they’re coming together each day,” Miller said. “They’re doing a great job. I think maybe one thing is there’s a tendency when you get a lead sometimes you go away from what you’re trying to do. I thought we stayed with it all the way through. If there’s one thing to look at, I would compliment our guys not playing to game situations, playing the way that they needed to play and continue working to be a consistent team.”

The most unlikely contributor was Dennis Smith Jr., who had been buried on the bench. Smith appeared late in the first quarter and helped turn the game into a blowout with eight points, three assists, a steal and a block in a nine-minute run.

For the last three games — the first one because of a migraine that sidelined him at Golden State, then two because Miller opted not to call his name—Smith never got off the bench. 

But when Miller, who served as coach of the Knicks G League for the last four seasons, was asked if he thought Smith could benefit from a trip down to the Westchester Knicks to get his rhythm back with game action, he said it hasn’t been discussed.

“No. I can’t say there has at this point,” Miller said. “We really believe in Dennis. We know how talented he is and what his abilities are.

“Fortunately, our point guard play has been really good. Elfrid has had some good games. Frank [Ntilikina] really had a good game in Denver. We have the luxury of having three guys who can play that all have different skill sets and abilities we can tap into as the game dictates.”

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