It was an honor for Julius Randle to be named an All-Star this season. But not everyone was happy about it, most notably the players who were left off while he got the spot.
Domantas Sabonis, who was the player most often in the conversation with Randle for that spot, was left off until he became an injury replacement. So just days after the announcement of the roster, the two got to state their case head-to-head Saturday night.
The pushing, shoving and chatter made it clear that they were up for the battle. And in the end, as was the case with the vote, Randle got the best of Sabonis. He took over down the stretch and led the Knicks to a 110-107 win over the Pacers at Madison Square Garden as they evened their record at 17-17.
"It’s everything, man, just as a competitor," Randle said. "Sometimes there are just individual matchups that you take — not personal or nothing, like you don’t like the other guy, just personal from a competitive standpoint. So it was that. It was the series matchup as a team. And us feeling like we really needed to win this game with how tight the playoff race is, feeling like we really needed to win this game. From that standpoint. Protecting home court. It’s a lot of different things."
The game wasn’t decided until little-used Frank Ntilikina, inserted as a defensive replacement in the final minute, stole a pass and converted a pair of free throws with 2.9 seconds left for a four-point lead. Derrick Rose then fouled T.J. McConnell with four-tenths of a second left. He hit the first free throw and intentionally misfired on the second, but it bounded innocently away.
It wasn’t just a battle for the individuals. The Knicks now are tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference race, but a loss would have dropped them into a virtual three-way tie for eighth.
When they trailed by 16 in the second quarter, it seemed to portend an answer they didn’t want to hear. But the Knicks clawed their way back in front by halftime and survived after a back-and-forth battle down the stretch.
Even with the move up the standings, Tom Thibodeau was not celebrating.
"No, because it’s a long season, and that’s what we have to understand and every game is deeply important," he said. "One game doesn’t take on more meaning than another. They all count the same. And where you end up, that can be the difference between a lot of things.
"So we have to understand how important each day is, have to understand how important each practice is. We have to understand how important each possession is. And so if we want to fight for things we say we want to fight for, there’s a price to pay for that, and we have to do that.’’
Still, to players who have endured the hard times in New York, this was a special victory.
"It means a lot for us," said RJ Barrett, who had 24 points. "We’re a hard-working group. Our coaches are hard-working. And we want to win. That’s what we’re here for. It definitely feels great. I’ve been a winner all my life. So this feels good."
It didn’t come without some nerves. Barrett, who had served as a reliable second option on this night, was fouled with 14.6 seconds left and the Knicks up by two. He missed both free throws, giving Indiana a chance again after a timeout.
Randle finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals. The Knicks got help from Rose, too, as he started for the second straight game with Elfrid Payton out with a hamstring injury. After scoring 18 points Thursday, he had 17 points, 11 assists and four steals Saturday night.
Former Knick Doug McDermott had 20 points for the Pacers (15-17) and McConnell added 17 points and 12 assists. Sabonis had 15 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.