As the Knicks prepared to take the floor against the Lakers on Monday night, it presented a test — just not the kind of test they might have anticipated when they first saw the schedule.
There was no LeBron James or Anthony Davis to face the Knicks at the Garden for a team believed to be a title favorite. Instead, with a patchwork lineup, the Lakers presented a challenge for the Knicks to prove that in a season in which anything seems possible, are they prepared to take advantage of it?
Facing a Lakers squad that is a shadow of the team that was assembled to try to repeat as champions, the Knicks were trying to maintain their own momentum and belief as they played on the second night of a back-to-back set. And Julius Randle was not about to let that opportunity pass.
Facing the team that drafted him — and the team that let him walk away — Randle scored 19 of his 34 points in the first half and added 10 rebounds as the Knicks earned their third straight win, beating the Lakers, 111-96.
Randle heard what has become routine at the Garden — MVP chants directed at him by the fans. "It’s cool, man," he said. "The love you get in the Garden, the love they’re showing me is amazing. It feels really good. I’m not going to lie. It’s motivating me to keep working harder and bringing it every night."
He and Elfrid Payton carried the offense, with Payton scoring 20 points. But it was more than just the points that mattered on this night, as it has so many times for the Knicks this season. Their defense turned the Lakers into a disjointed mess.
The Knicks (28-27) held the Lakers (33-21) to 16 points in the third quarter, opening a 13-point advantage.
Los Angeles made a brief run midway through the fourth, closing the gap to five with 5:13 left. But Payton got to the rim and scored and Randle hit a turnaround jumper in the lane with 4:26 left, drawing a foul and converting the three-point play to push the lead back to 10.
The Knicks’ growth has been tested in recent weeks. They had lost five of six games, tumbling from fourth place in the Eastern Conference to eighth. Then they fell behind by 14 points against Memphis on Friday before winning in overtime. They followed that by building an 18-point lead over Toronto on Sunday before surviving for the win.
"There’s ups and downs in the season," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "You have to keep going. If you get knocked down, you dust yourself off, get up and come back with more fight and grit. That’s what this team has — it has a togetherness and a belief that we can get it done."
The Knicks lost to lowly Minnesota two weeks ago but still impressed Timberwolves rookie Anthony Edwards.
"Defense is effort," he said. "If you give effort, you got great defense. If you watch New York night in and night out, they don’t have great single defenders. Whatever their defensive game plan is, that’s great. They play great defense as a team at all times. I love watching them play defense. I feel they’re the best defensive team in the league. They play hard. They take you out of your stuff and they pressure you."
That certainly warms the heart of Thibodeau, who has made that kind of defense and effort his calling card in every coaching stop in his career.
"I think you earn the respect of your peers by how hard you play, how smart you play and how together you play," he said. "So I think this team has demonstrated that willingness all season long. So I think they [have] the respect of their peers and the officials, and everybody that’s involved with the game, and I think that’s important for our organization."