CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With just over two minutes left in Wednesday night’s game in Atlanta, Jalen Brunson drained a three-point field goal, giving the Knicks a one-point lead they would not surrender. And now, two games later, the Knicks have yet to trail for a second, a span stretching 98 minutes and 1 second.
The Knicks have gotten this steady performance despite shifting lineups. They played without RJ Barrett on Wednesday and Friday and without Quentin Grimes on Friday and Saturday, with Tom Thibodeau patching together new configurations — all of which seem to be working right now.
Barrett was back in the starting lineup Saturday, playing for the first time since Nov. 12 after battling what the team called a migraine. He clearly was not the same player he was before sitting out, when he led the Knicks in scoring and shot career-best percentages. He looked gassed at times and struggled to find rhythm and timing.
But Barrett didn’t need to be at his best as the Knicks won their third straight game and sixth in the last seven. Brunson provided assurance that the struggling Charlotte Hornets would not spoil their run, scoring 32 points in a 122-108 decision at the Spectrum Center.
Brunson, who also scored 32 points on Friday, added seven assists. Donte DiVincenzo got the start for a second straight game in place of Grimes and contributed 25 points and seven three-pointers, both career highs. Julius Randle had 21 points and eight assists.
“I think we’re on our way,” Brunson said. “Still have a lot of work to do — 13 games in I think, still got a long way to go. I think we’re in a good stretch right now. Still have to continue to build off of it.”
The Knicks (8-5) led by as many as 11 in the first quarter, with this first-time starting five taking control from the opening tip, and stretched the lead to 15 in the second quarter. The Hornets (3-9), led by LaMelo Ball’s 34 points and Brandon Miller’s 29, hung around but never really threatened.
The most pressing concern for the Knicks was getting Barrett back in the lineup and in form. He finished with 16 points in 26 minutes, shooting 5-for-15 overall and 1-for-5 from three-point range, far from the way he was playing before the shutdown. After the game, he said this was his first migraine and had no idea what brought it on.
“I wasn’t feeling well,” he said. “For me to sit out three games, it definitely was not something fun at all. Not anything I’d wish on anybody, for sure. A lot of stuff going on. It was my first one as well. So definitely wasn’t the best feeling at all. It was terrible, actually. I’m feeling better now, thank God.
“I didn’t feel right [Friday when he warmed up but could not play]. Because right now, I feel better, but obviously not 100%. But I took a couple days and I felt good enough to play tonight. I’m all right. I’m just going to work through it like everybody else. Nobody here is 100%, so I’ll be all right.”
Notes & quotes: Mitchell Robinson had 11 offensive rebounds and moved past Kurt Thomas and Bill Cartwright on the Knicks’ all-time list with 1,116 in his career. He sits in third place behind Charles Oakley (2,580) and Patrick Ewing (2,568) . . . Grimes was out for a second straight game with a sprained left wrist. He worked out on the court before the game without the soft cast he was wearing Friday, and Thibodeau maintained that his status is day-to-day . . . After playing his first minutes of the season Friday night in Washington, Evan Fournier was unavailable Saturday, having suffered a right ankle injury in his 16-minute appearance. “It was a timeout, third quarter, when I noticed the pain, but I honestly have no clue,” he said, wearing a walking boot on his foot. “I didn’t twist my ankle. I didn’t land on somebody’s foot. I didn’t step hard or misstep. So honestly, I don’t know.” . . . The Hornets hired Patrick Ewing as a coaching consultant at the start of training camp. “For me personally, it’s great, because he watches all the games and he calls me and we talk about it,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “He’s somebody that we worked together for a long time. We’ve been good friends. So he’s honest, like, ‘What the hell is wrong with the defense?’ ”