Tom Thibodeau has a few maxims as a head coach. He stresses defense and accountability, but mostly what he does is try to get his team to focus on the task in front of it, whether it is on the practice court or in a video session or even in a game. Don’t worry about the big picture and enjoy the magic in the work.
That might explain how the Knicks responded so well after losing five of six games recently. If the magic of the season seemed to be ending, they turned it around.
Their 117-109 win over the Mavericks in Dallas on Friday night was their fifth straight win — their longest streak since March 2014. The Knicks (30-27) are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game behind the Hawks and Celtics, who are tied for fourth.
Of course, another reason might be this: Julius Randle.
Randle had 44 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists against the Mavericks, falling one point short of his career high. He outdueled Luka Doncic, who had 22 points, 19 assists and eight rebounds, and former Knick Kristaps Porzingis, who had 23 points and 12 rebounds.
It was Randle’s third straight game with at least 30 points — perhaps not coincidentally against the Lakers and Pelicans, the two teams he played for before coming to the Knicks, and the Mavericks in his hometown. Randle averaged 37.3 points per game in that span and will face New Orleans again Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
"Honestly, the way they made the schedule," said RJ Barrett, who had 24 points. "Lakers, New Orleans, in Dallas and then New Orleans again. You kind of knew he was going to come out and do this. It doesn’t surprise me at all."
"When you’re scoring the ball and making plays the way he is, he’s rarely single-covered," Thibodeau said. "And he’s making the right plays, he’s making winning plays. The way we started the game, his aggressiveness set the tone for it. We said it many times: He’s our engine. He makes us go."
When Randle went to the bench to start the fourth quarter, Barrett stayed on the floor. Having already played 34 minutes to that point, he scored the first eight points of the quarter as the Knicks opened a 91-82 lead. After Frank Ntilikina hit a three, Barrett struck again, following his own miss.
Back in the game, Randle helped put the game away, first with a left-side drive and shot high off the glass with 3:08 left for an eight-point lead. He then upped the lead to 109-99 with 1:44 to play as the Knicks isolated him for a turnaround jumper.
"We feel good," Randle said. "Our confidence never wavers. We believe in our game plan, our coaches. Everybody one through 15 out on that court believes in each other. So I mean we had a stretch — everybody throughout the season, it’s going to be ups and downs. But we stay solid."
"In the NBA, you always get a little panic," Taj Gibson said before the game. "But whatever team you go to, you have to work your way out of the situations. When you think somebody is going to come save you, no one is going to save you. Every team is going to try to capitalize on you in your down state.
"It’s about coming together as a group, believing in each other and mustering up enough fight and toughness to pull out a tough win, even if it’s on the road or at home. Every game in this league is tough. Everybody in the league will give you a tough night. It’s the best basketball players in the league. The league is talented."
The Knicks have lost Mitchell Robinson, likely for the season. They learned Friday that they would be without Alec Burks, who was lost to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. And still they keep moving forward, heading toward a playoff berth for the first time since 2013.
Few could have expected it when the season began, but with 16 games left, the Knicks almost certainly are going to wind up in the postseason, whether it is securing a top-six spot or finishing from seventh to 10th place to put them in the play-in tournament.
The task ahead is not an easy one. The schedule is tough and the Knicks got a bit of harsh news Friday when they learned Burks would be lost.
"You just take it step by step," Thibodeau said. "I think that’s the important thing. You learn from every game. I think you go through situations where you have different players out, guys step in."