The Knicks have made their way through the season on the strength of their defense and it was presented with a test Wednesday night, trying to slow down the most unusual athlete in the NBA — Zion Williamson.
And like most teams, it was difficult to find a way to slow Williamson. But the Knicks, with the stingiest defense in the league this season, found contributions on that end as a team — sending multiple players at Williamson — and from unusual individual efforts.
There was Norvel Pelle swatting a Williamson drive and then rising to nearly swallow another shot that was ruled a goaltend. And in the fourth quarter with the game still in doubt, Derrick Rose blocked a shot and then stole a pass in a span of just over a minute, helping secure a 116-106 win over the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.
The win was the Knicks fourth straight, their longest winning streak of the season, and improved their record to 29-27 — good for seventh place in the Eastern Conference playoff race with 16 games remaining.
Williamson still managed to get his, entering the game averaging 26.8 points per game and finishing with 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, Randle led all scorers with 32 points, adding eight rebounds and five assists. Alec Burks scored 14 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. The production helped offset a second straight sluggish offensive performance from RJ Barrett, who had just six points on 2-for-10 shooting and spent much of the fourth quarter on the bench as Burks and Rose carried the team down the stretch.
The Knicks were without their defensive anchor, Nerlens Noel, who has emerged as a shot blocking force with Mitchell Robinson out of action. Noel was a late scratch with a sore right ankle, pushing Taj Gibson into the starting lineup. Whatever mix Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has put on the floor this season the results have been the same — slowing down the best offensive teams in the league.
"Now they're a great defensive team," Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said before the game. "Tom's a great defensive coach — is great coach, period. And look, they've got tough veteran guys around a young guy like RJ Barrett. They're putting guys out there who’ve been in the league and know what it takes.
"And they've got a couple of guys that have been with Tom, with Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose, so you know they've got people who know what's going on and it's a tough competitive group. It’s a throwback to the 90s Knicks, you know, low-scoring games, a lot of them for them. But a physical, tough, very good defense. And, you know, I think they’re improving offensively, particularly over the last few weeks."
This wasn’t the best effort for a team leading the league in points allowed. The Knicks showed the toughness that has typified them down the stretch. They held the Pelicans without a field goal for the first 4:51 of the fourth quarter, building an 11-point lead. And then when New Orleans fought back, Randle connected on a jumper in the lane over Williamson with 3:41 left. On the other end, Williamson tried a short shot in the lane, but Gibson blocked it with 3:15 left.
As for Williamson, the Knicks may have gotten the better of him on this night, but there is little doubt he is headed toward an elite stratosphere.
"It's early on but certainly what he what he did at Duke and now what he's doing in the NBA, I don't know if there's anyone, and I hate to do it anyway, to compare him to," Thibodeau said. "It's hard to judge a player until his career is over. But certainly what he's doing is very, very impressive, to have the combination of the power the speed and the skill. It's very, very unusual. And he's come into the NBA and he's taking the best on."