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Knicks' defense saves the day again in ugly win over Magic 

Orlando Magic center Khem Birch and New York

Orlando Magic center Khem Birch and New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) fight over control of the ball during a floor scramble as Knicks forward Julius Randle, left, looks on during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in New York. The scramble led to a jump ball. The Knicks defeated the Magic 91-84. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, Pool) Credit: AP/Kathy Willens

After the Knicks’ 30-point victory over the Celtics on Sunday, Tom Thibodeau joked that he wasn’t happy unless he was miserable. But somewhere amid the work and the endless film-watching, there had to be a little smile of nostalgia for him.

After holding Boston to 75 points, the Knicks were back at work early Monday morning, running through a hard pregame shootaround. Then they were at it again, arm-wrestling their way to a 91-84 win over the Magic, with the back-to-back wins providing a throwback to better days of hard-defending Knicks teams.

Some of it might have had to do with the early starts — 1 p.m. Sunday and noon on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And maybe some of it was a product of injuries and illness — the Celtics were missing their best player, Jayson Tatum, and the Magic were a shell of a team with Evan Fournier, Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and four other players sidelined.

Or maybe the Knicks (7-8), who had lost five in a row before bouncing back, are starting to get what Thibodeau has been preaching.

"I love winning," he said. "So low-scoring, high-scoring, medium-scoring, it doesn’t matter. I just want to win. Whatever we have to do to find a way to win, improve every day, and I want to be playing our best down the stretch.

"I think a big part of the NBA is the conditioning component. The reason you have to be in great shape is the intensity of the game is very unique. And throughout the course of the season, there’s different challenges, situations in which you may have to travel, you may have back-to-backs, you may be down players with injury. You have to handle each situation. Just like everything else, winning is a habit. You have to work at it." 

With both teams shooting poorly, the ball mostly flew all over the place for much of the day. The Knicks led by as many as 15 points, including 14 early in the fourth quarter on Obi Toppin’s dunk off Immanuel Quickley’s alley-oop pass. Orlando’s frustration showed when Terrence Ross threw a bullet off the backboard in anger, drawing a technical foul. The question for the officials was, how could anyone tell it wasn’t a legitimate attempt?

But the Magic finally found the range in the final 12 minutes and actually took the lead, fittingly on a desperation one-hand fling by Ross with the 24-second clock down to zero. His 29-footer swished through for an 81-80 Magic lead with 1:41 left, putting a smile on his face.

But the Knicks’ defense then took hold, with RJ Barrett and Reggie Bullock combining to swipe Aaron Gordon’s pass and Barrett (22 points, 10 rebounds) racing the length of the court for a contested layup and a four-point lead.

Gordon then misfired in traffic, and after a jump ball, Bullock hit two free throws with 27.6 seconds left. Four free throws by Julius Randle clinched it, capping an 11-3 run in the final 1:33.

The Knicks limited the Magic to 33.7% shooting (they also had their own struggles, shooting 5-for-27 from beyond the arc). Randle shot 5-for-19 but still had 21 points and 17 rebounds.

"To be honest, though, I’m ready to go home and I’m going to get a glass of wine, and I haven’t had one in a couple of months," Randle said. "I’m going to get some wine tonight and enjoy the rest of the day with my wife and son before we go on this [four-game] road trip and do whatever recovery I need to do to get ready for the next one."

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