The Knicks were back home at Madison Square Garden on Friday night, taking the court after two days off. Yet for much of the night, it seemed as if they were still toiling on the road, finding excuses between time zones rather than enjoying familiar surroundings.
They were dragging through a sloppy start against Cleveland, scoring only three points in the first six minutes. The Knicks had just a five-point lead when Immanuel Quickley entered with 5:31 to play in the third. Then he misfired on his first five shots of the second half, seeming to fit right in.
But in a flurry, Quickley drove in for a dunk and a foul, then hit a buzzer-beating 27-foot three-point field goal to end the third quarter. Then he started the fourth quarter with a long three and then another, helping to turn the game into a 102-81 Knicks rout.
There was joy — Quickley mimicked swimming on the floor after a three-pointer early in the fourth quarter — but mostly there was just a spark. He scored 14 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter and again raised the question of just how long the Knicks can go with Elfrid Payton as the starting point guard.
"There’s always thought with everything," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "And because someone doesn’t start, that’s really not that important to me . . . So he’s going to have a significant role. But we’re going to need everyone. So tonight was [Quickley’s] night and Sunday it could be somebody else’s."
Like many rookies, Quickley remains prone to wild swings of inconsistency. He shot 2-for-9 before igniting the offense and finished 9-for-17. He also shot 1-for-11 in the previous game. But it is hard to argue that he can spark the team in ways Payton cannot.
"I really just do whatever the coaches ask me to do," Quickley said. "Right now, it’s coming off the bench. When I come into the game just giving energy, playing my game, which is playing hard, being unselfish, being aggressive when I have to, playing defense and really just doing what the team needs me to do to get wins.
"That’s the most important thing right now. I think we’re like nine or eighth seed, so we’re trying to get into the playoffs this year and just doing whatever my team needs me to do to achieve that."
Payton was 1-for-6 shooting with just two points and three assists in 23 minutes. Neither guard is an elite defender, but while Payton was being outrun by Cleveland’s duo of Darius Garland (24 points) and Collin Sexton (17), Quickley at least presented an equally explosive option attacking them. And whenever Quickley entered, the pace changed dramatically.
"It’s what he does," Thibodeau said. "He’s a scorer. He’s a shooter. He’s very effective in pick-and-rolls and his teammates are doing a great job of setting him up. And so the bench has really built great chemistry together. They’re playing off each other. But the shooting opens up so many different things for everyone.
"And he is fearless. That’s a great word to describe him. He plays with a lot of poise for a rookie. He’s not going to get rushed and he knows what his strengths are. He knows what his teammate’s strengths are and he’s a student of the game. He’s just going to get better."
RJ Barrett scored 16 of his 24 points in the first half for the Knicks (9-11) while the Cavs worked to limit Julius Randle. Randle did not even attempt a field goal until 3:49 remained in the first half, but the Knicks still built a 47-33 advantage at the intermission. However, it wasn’t until Quickley was swimming on the floor that it seemed over.
"We were in the cold tub after and Austin [Rivers] was like, ‘What was that?’ " Quickley said. "I was like, I can’t explain it, bro, I don’t know what I was doing, to be honest. I think I’ve seen Steph [Curry] do it one time. But other than that, it was just in the moment. I was having fun."