Pistons guard Derrick Walton Jr. fouls Knicks guard Alec Burks during...

Pistons guard Derrick Walton Jr. fouls Knicks guard Alec Burks during the second half of an NBA game on Wednesday in Detroit. Credit: AP/Carlos Osorio

DETROIT — Tom Thibodeau likes to lecture his team that every player who makes it to the NBA has to be great to get there, so ignore the names on the jersey and the pedigree of the opposition and just play hard.

For much of the night Wednesday at Little Caesars Arena, his point could be debated — not because of the performance of the no-name assemblage of players that the Detroit Pistons put on the floor but because of the awful, lifeless effort by his own most heralded players.

Facing a team decimated by COVID-19 and other injuries — a team that was able to prevent the game from being postponed only by stocking the roster with eight hardship exception additions — the Knicks found themselves being run off the court in the third quarter when Thibodeau lifted his starters and let the bench carry the day.

With an infusion of energy that had been noticeably lacking, the Knicks came back from a 14-point deficit for a 94-85 win, dropping Detroit to 5-28.

The Knicks (17-18) escaped their back-to-back with wins over the severely shorthanded Timberwolves and Pistons, neither of which will reappear as MSG Classics, and have won three straight games.

After the Knicks fell behind 66-52, Thibodeau went with five reserves and watched them outscore the Pistons 33-9 in the next 10:27 to take an 85-75 lead, helped by a 17-0 run. Thibodeau never went back to the starters, keeping this unit intact for the final 3:16 of the third quarter and the entire fourth quarter.

Alec Burks scored 34 points, scoring 24 points in a span of 12:33 (shooting 8-for-10 from the field and 4-for-4 from three-point range) as the Knicks turned a 68-55 deficit into a 92-80 lead.

Taj Gibson provided an experienced and energetic lift along with Miles McBride (who was scoreless but changed the tone defensively), Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley.

The Knicks' five reserves scored 65 points in 136 minutes and were a plus-161. The five starters scored 29 points in 104 minutes and were a minus-116.

The problem for Thibodeau is what to make of the starters.

Julius Randle followed up a 5-for-20 night in Minnesota with a 2-for-11, five-point effort as he seemed for the second straight night to be lacking in energy.

Thibodeau said afterward that Randle is hurting, noting, "He’s nicked up. I think that he’s giving us everything he has. That’s what I love about him. He’s not making any excuses. He just gets out there, he keeps going." Randle was not made available after the game.

Kemba Walker, playing on back-to-back nights, was 1-for-5 with two points and two assists in 20 minutes. RJ Barrett scored 15 points but was a team-worst minus-29.

The team was without Evan Fournier, who was a last-minute scratch after unsuccessfully trying to loosen up a sore right ankle in warmups. Rookie Quentin Grimes got the start and for a night fit right in with the rest of the underachieving unit — enduring an 0-for-5, scoreless 13 minutes.

"What we were thinking coming in — we had travel issues yesterday — so we knew it would be a challenge," Thibodeau said after plane trouble delayed their flight and they didn’t arrive until 5 a.m. "The whole thing was just try to find a way to win. No excuses. We’ll find some people who can get something done. That’s what we did."

Saddiq Bey (32 points, nine rebounds) and Hamidou Diallo (31 points, 13 rebounds) totaled 50 points as the Pistons brought a 71-64 lead into the fourth quarter, but Detroit shot 2-for-16 in the final period.

The Pistons, or at least this diluted version of the team, went scoreless for the first 4:47 of the game, misfiring on their first eight shots. But trailing 7-0 at that point, they went on a 13-0 run with a lineup that was missing 12 players from the roster. The Pistons grew even more depleted with Frank Jackson, who started in the backcourt, carried off the floor by teammates after injuring his leg.

But the Knicks' problem got much worse in the third quarter when Detroit mounted a 16-2 run to start the period. The Knicks called time a minute in, then again and finally again when the run reached 25-4.

Mitchell Robinson was called for offensive goaltending twice and the Knicks committed a five-second violation when they tried to inbound at midcourt. The arena suddenly was rocking as if the fans were watching the Bad Boys of the Pistons championship years as this ragtag group turned a 45-34 deficit late in the second quarter into a 66-52 lead.

"You can have all the excuses in the world," Gibson said. "You can say we came in late, we’re tired, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to go out there and do your job. You’ve got to go out there and be professional and find a way to win. That’s why you have the players on this team, and that just showed a lot of character right there to come back the way we were."


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