The game pitting the Knicks against the Lakers had the anticipation of a star-driven matchup of historic franchises on the rise and a national television audience watching from a sold-out Madison Square Garden, but it already had lost some of its luster even before it began.
LeBron James was suspended for the game for his part in Sunday’s ugly incident in Detroit. Anthony Davis was a question mark almost until game time with flu-like symptoms. The Knicks were missing key pieces in Mitchell Robinson, Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose.
The Knicks then appeared to turn the game into a blowout, building a 25-point second-quarter lead as the Lakers seemingly aged as the game went on. But before the audience could tune out, the Lakers battled back to tie the score, and it took late-game heroics for the Knicks to pull out a 106-100 win.
"This game is a perfect example of how we play," Evan Fournier said. "We are very capable of playing really, really good basketball and all of a sudden not so well. And they get comfortable and we let them back in the game . . . For us, the key is to find that balance and that rhythm. We can be really good. We just have to trust how to play and when we have a way to play, just stay with it."
Alec Burks' three-point play gave the Knicks a 54-29 lead with 7:04 left in the second quarter, but when Carmelo Anthony threw down a fast-break dunk late in the third period, the Lakers tied it at 79. Immanuel Quickley's three-pointer gave the Knicks a 105-93 lead with five minutes remaining before the Lakers drew within 105-100 with 39.9 seconds left.
Fournier had 26 points, shooting 6-for-9 from three-point range, and Julius Randle added 20 points, 16 rebounds and five assists for the Knicks (10-8). Russell Westbrook had 31 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists and Davis added 20 points for the Lakers (9-10).
Without Rose to stabilize the second unit, the Knicks saw their lead wiped out and seemingly had few answers. Tom Thibodeau went with youth at times searching for a lineup that could hold off the Lakers, even putting Randle on the bench when he picked up his fifth foul with 9:18 left and the Knicks leading 90-84.
Quickley was 0-for-3 from the field with just a pair of free throws through three quarters, but in the fourth quarter. he drained four three-point field goals, skipped and celebrated after each one and ignited the crowd. Randle returned with 1:14 left and the Knicks up 10 and saw the lead cut to five quickly, but he made one of two from the line with 35.5 seconds left to close out the scoring. Westbrook and Malik Monk misfired from three-point range and the Knicks ran the clock down to secure the win.
'We were just trying to buy some time there," Thibodeau said of the long stretch without Randle after he got his fifth foul. "And that group ended up going on a little bit of a run, so it allowed us to go a little bit longer. But I was concerned about the matchup, but that group did a really good job there."
The Knicks took a 10-0 lead, went ahead 36-20 after one quarter and extended the lead to 25 in the second quarter as the Lakers looked every bit of the age of their revamped roster. The only mystery then seemed to be whether Anthony, in his return to New York, had another magical night in him (spoiler — he didn’t, shooting 3-for-14 from the floor and scoring 12 points).
Clinging to a 88-84 lead, the Knicks got a rare fourth-quarter play from Fournier, who harassed Wayne Ellington into an ill-advised crosscourt pass. The pass was deflected by Burks and saved by Randle, who fired ahead to Burks, who missed the layup. But Fournier hustled all the way from the far corner and tipped in the miss.
"And that’s the difference between winning and losing," Thibodeau said. "It’s a hustle play. Oftentimes, those are the type of plays that can get your team going. They unite and inspire the team. They can get you going. You see the ball go in, like a hustle-type play, you start feeling good and then all of a sudden, you’ve got rhythm and you’ve got flow."