HOUSTON — The Knicks arrived in Houston already shorthanded and struggling, and they got more bad news Thursday morning when Kevin Knox was placed in the NBA’s health and safety protocols, pushing the total to four players sidelined by the COVID-19 policy.
It didn’t portend a big night on the road for the Knicks, but it has seemed as if every player lost has led to an opportunity for another. Quentin Grimes stepping in for RJ Barrett. Knox picking up some of the minutes that Grimes had. And with four players sidelined, Miles McBride got his chance Thursday night.
The rookie, who has seen limited minutes this season, provided a huge burst of energy off the bench for a team in need of it in the first half. Then, when Derrick Rose was ruled out for the second half after struggling through 12 minutes with a sore right ankle, McBride was elevated to start the half. And he delivered, helping the Knicks to a much-needed 116-103 win over the Rockets.
McBride had totaled only 12 minutes this season before Tuesday, when he was on the floor for 20 minutes. On this night, he not only played 35:49 but never left the floor in the second half, finishing with 15 points, nine assists, four steals and zero turnovers.
Was he particularly proud of any of those stats? "Every time I step on the court, I just want to impact winning,'' he said. "That means on the defensive end, I’m always going to bring it. Offensively, I’m just going to read what the game gives me.''
Was he surprised to play all 24 minutes in the second half? "I felt like I could continue to impact winning,'' he said, "and I guess Thibs did, too.''
"They got going so we ran with them a little longer," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I think it was good in some ways. It gave Julius more rest and keeps him fresh down the stretch. I thought Mitch [Robinson]’s activity was huge for us."
Evan Fournier had 23 points and Julius Randle added 21, but it was the young backcourt off the bench of McBride and Immanuel Quickley who carried the day.
"It really feels great, honestly,'' McBride said. "It’s been hard, obviously playing a different role than I’m used to my whole life. The coaches and the vets have been encouraging to stay ready. Your opportunity comes, it’s a long year. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, continue to keep a positive attitude.''
Quickley shot 7-for-10 from three-point range and scored 24 points for the Knicks (13-16), who shot 17-for-36 from outside the arc. Robinson shot 8-for-8 and had 17 points and nine rebounds off the bench.
Quickley, who hit five three-pointers in the fourth quarter, had 15 points and Robinson 13 as the Knicks outscored the Rockets 32-21 in the period. Fournier scored 11 points and Randle 10 in the Knicks’ 39-point first quarter, with the team shooting 7-for-11 from three-point range.
Daniel Theis had 22 points and Jae’Sean Tate added 20 for the Rockets (9-20).
The Knicks led by as many as 17 in the first half, but the Rockets, one night after losing by 35 points in Cleveland, closed the deficit to six by halftime. With 4:41 left in the third quarter, they tied it on a tough bucket in the paint by Theis and took a 74-72 lead on the next trip when Josh Christopher stole it from Quickley and went the distance for a layup.
The Knicks took a 57-51 lead into halftime, with Randle leading the way with 15 points. But it was McBride who was the difference-maker, scoring 11 points and shooting 4-for-5, including a pair of three-point field goals and one end-to-end burst in which he picked up a steal and went right at the rim with a pair of Houston defenders in front of him, converting the layup and drawing a foul. More important, the hard-nosed rookie had three steals and tenaciously battled against the likes of Eric Gordon.
The emergence came with the Knicks seeking a way through a COVID crisis that is running rampant through the league. The surge in positive tests has hit the NBA hard, and the Knicks hardly are the only team affected. The Chicago Bulls recently had 10 players in the health and safety protocols and the Nets currently have seven in the protocols.
But for the Knicks, with seven losses in their last eight games entering Thursday, what might be as bad as the absence of the four players is that the NBA guidelines for teams suffering these outbreaks has caused them to basically halt work outside of the games.
The Knicks were unable to practice Wednesday and had to cancel the morning shootaround Thursday with the league restricting the ability to gather players together. The requirement is for teams to return lab-based PCR tests in the morning before gathering as a team, and the timing of those tests makes a morning workout or early off-day practice almost impossible.