The Knicks had started their day with the announcement that, not surprisingly, they had picked up the fourth-year options for Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley as well as the third-year option for Quentin Grimes, marking a show of faith in the young bench players that the franchise was entrusting.
But trust sometimes only goes so far and early in the fourth quarter with what had been a 12-point lead down to three, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau called for the starters, putting Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle back on the floor in place of Quickley and Toppin. On this night, he was putting his faith in the stars, or as close to stars as the Knicks have on the roster.
“Just find a way to win,” Thibodeau said. “That’s the bottom line.”
But the Knicks’ starters stumbled, too, and the shorthanded Charlotte Hornets took a five-point lead late in the game. The steady hand of Brunson, which has quickly become a regular occurrence, carried the Knicks through with 27 points and a career-high 13 assists to go along with seven rebounds, salvaging a 134-131 overtime win at Madison Square Garden.
“That’s who he is, that’s what he does,” Thibodeau said about Brunson. “We didn’t play our best. Want to give them credit. At the end Julius made a number of big plays.”
Still, to say it was a hard-fought win doesn’t do it justice since the difference was a half size in the shoe of P.J. Washington.
The Hornets, playing without injured standout LaMelo Ball, have inserted former Knick Dennis Smith Jr. into the starting lineup and Smith delivered a payback performance with 14 points and 11 assists.
Smith put the Hornets ahead to start the overtime, but after missed threes by RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, Brunson connected from long range for the lead. Barrett then stripped Kelly Oubre, knocking the ball out of bounds off Oubre, who then was called for a technical foul. Brunson dropped in the free throw for a two-point Knicks lead. Brunson then slipped a pretty feed to Mitchell Robinson for a wide-open dunk.
The Knicks struggled to finish it off, the Hornets closing the gap to one again and Brunson scored in traffic. The Hornets countered and this time it was Randle with a tough drive with :19.2 remaining for a 132-129 lead. The Hornets called time and Oubre air-balled a three-pointer, but the ball went tout of bounds off the Knicks, giving Charlotte another chance with :12.9 to play. Robinson swatted out a Jalen McDaniel drive — his sixth block of the game — and this time Smith inbounded to Washington, who appeared to tie the score — but the tip of his sneaker was on the line, the shot ruled a two-pointer with 5.5 seconds left.
Barrett was fouled and hit a pair from the line with 3.8 seconds left.
“Those are big,” Barrett said. “I was confident. Always confident in those. Missing free throws is unacceptable.”
Randle fouled Smith in the backcourt to prevent a three and Smith missed the first shot and intentionally missed the second, but the Knicks grabbed the rebound and the win.
“I think there’s multiple ways to win a game. You can win it with your defense, toughness. You can win it obviously shooting the ball well. It’s a balance. Today was one of those games where we kinda had to tough it out, grind it out in the end, at least. Defense wasn’t great tonight, but we’ll get back on track.”