How the Knicks found their mojo back in franchise’s biggest comeback win

With 7:20 left in the second quarter, the Milwaukee Bucks tried to blitz a New York Knicks‘ pick and roll play.

Derrick Rose fought off a Jrue Holiday and Bobby Portis double team and whipped a wicked pass to a rolling Mitchell Robinson. Bucks’ 3-and-D wing Grayson Allen, who gives up six inches vertically to the 7-foot Knicks center, had no choice but to foul.

It was too late.

Robinson slammed the ball. He completed the three-point play that was part of a Knicks’ 24-8 run.

“This is all about Derrick Rose orchestrating this team in getting back to this basketball game,” analyst Doris Burke blurted out on the ESPN telecast.

Behind Rose and a rejuvenated defense, the Knicks cut the once-imposing Bucks’ 21-point lead down to seven at the half, 63-56.

“Defensively, I think we lost our identity in the second quarter,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Rose played the whole second quarter. He pushed the ball and kept pressuring the Bucks’ defense until it broke down. Rose had eight in the pivotal second quarter, where the Knicks exploded for 37 points.

The Knicks came to Milwaukee distraught with a two-game losing streak. An 11-0 Indiana Pacers start buried them two nights before this match.

“We got to pick ourselves up and have a determination about it. I always say, you have to be mentally tough when you’re facing adversity, and that’s where we are right now,” New York coach Thibodeau said after a failed comeback attempt against the Pacers.

The early moments of this game felt eerily similar to their road loss in Indiana.

The defending champion Bucks, without Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton, started the game on a 6-0 run. Allen waxed hot from the outside as the Knicks were again a step slow to close out as they packed the paint to stop two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. At one point, Allen outscored the Knicks, 14-13.

The Bucks shot 8 for 16 from the outside en route to 38 first-quarter points. The pressure was mounting as the Knicks’ signature defense under Tom Thibodeau was virtually non-existent in the first 12 minutes of their last two games. Indiana racked up 36 first-quarter points against them and cruised to a wire-to-wire 111-98 rout that sunk the Knicks to a 5-3 record after a 5-1 start.

Thibodeau turned to his most trusted player to turn the tide. Rose, who has been with Thibodeau from Chicago to Minnesota and now in New York, led the Knicks’ stunning comeback from 21 points down to win by 15, 113-98.

It marked the first time in franchise history that the Knicks have overcome a 20-point deficit to record a double-digit victory since the NBA began tracking play-by-play in boxscores during the 1997-98 season.

Rose provided the Knicks with “a little bit of everything,” said the 2-time All-NBA Defensive First Team Jrue Holiday, who came off the bench for the Bucks in his first game back from an ankle injury. “Floaters, the way he got into the paint, and his leadership. I think down the stretch, he hit some big [shots].”

Rose returned in the fourth quarter to finish off the Bucks with 10 of his season-high 23 points. But buried underneath Rose’s offensive brilliance is the grittiness he showed that rubbed off to the whole team.

“I felt once we got going a little bit and we made a couple of hustle plays and that sort of galvanized us and gave us our energy,” Thibodeau said.

Rose’s first play in the second quarter wasn’t a basket. It was a steal. He poked the ball away out of Pat Connaughton’s hands, setting the tone for their comeback.

The whole team fed off Rose’s energy. Alec Burks and RJ Barrett had burst in their steps, closing out a pair of Rodney Hood corner three-point attempts. Obi Toppin outran Giannis Antetokounmpo in transition. Even Evan Fournier battled underneath their basket and made an awe-inspiring putback. Nerlens Noel defended Antetokounmpo with gusto. Julius Randle got on track, dropping 10 of his game-high 32 points.

Staring face to face with adversity, the Knicks blinked for a while but did not back down. They pushed harder.

Budenholzer pointed out the 11 free throws the Knicks had in the second quarter. New York had zero in the opening quarter. It spoke volumes about the Knicks’ change of tenor, turning more aggressive after a lackadaisical effort at the start.

“We got beat in the defensive and offensive boards. We just didn’t play well after a good start. Credit to the Knicks. I think they just beat us in every facet of the game after the first quarter handily,” Budenholzer said.

He was right.

What stood out was the Knicks’ dominance in the paint and the glass. They outrebounded the Bucks, 59-37, and had a massive 54-28 advantage in points inside the paint. Their rebounding dominance and low turnovers, committing only eight after five in the first quarter, kept the Bucks from running. Milwaukee could only cough up 10 fastbreak points, the lowest the Knicks have allowed in their first nine games.

The gritty, resilient Knicks are back.

They returned to what went work for them last season— outmuscling and outhustling their opponent.

After shaking off the rust of a long layoff, Nerlens Noel anchored the Knicks’ defense. Noel scored six points in his second game back from a knee and hamstring injury but registered a second-team best plus-22 differential mainly because of his stout defense. He produced 13 rebounds, three steals, nine deflections, and a shot block that had Thibodeau gushing in the postgame presser.

“Nerlens’ play was phenomenal,” Thibodeau said. “We probably overlook all the other aspects of his defense because we always talk about his rim protection which is obviously elite. But his pick and roll defense is terrific as well and just the way he can fly all over the court. And he’s got great length and it gives your team energy.”

Noel teamed up with Robinson to hold Antetokounmpo to 42.6 percent shooting and just seven rebounds. The Bucks’ main man finished with 25 points on a rough 7 for 17 shooting from the floor. It was his second-worst shooting night of the season since a 36.4-percent disastrous showing in the Bucks’ loss to Miami Heat last month.

“The challenge with a guy like Giannis is we gotta load up pretty good to him and they can make some threes. And they did. And still, you can’t get discouraged. You gotta keep going. Make sure you’re protecting the paint,” Thibodeau said.

“But you got to make sure you’re firing out and covering that [three-point] line. So it requires you to do two, three, four things on the same play. They’re pushing the ball on top of that. So there’s no relaxing.”

After a torrid shooting start, the Bucks just hit 8 of 27 threes the rest of the way. The Knicks closed out strong on Bucks’ perimeter shooters while packing the paint. Overall, the Knicks’ defense held the Bucks to a 40.2 percent shooting night.

“I thought a lot of guys stepped up and I thought our bench gave us a great lift when they came in and they got it within reach. And then when the starters went back in the third, I thought they played with great intensity,” Thibodeau said.

After Rose lifted the Knicks in the second quarter, Walker seemed energized. He hit a three at the start of the third quarter as the Knicks’ starters went on a mini-run, trimming the Bucks’ lead further down to four. Then Thibodeau staggered Barrett with the second unit to keep on pressuring Milwaukee’s disintegrating defense.

An Immanuel Quickley fastbreak dunk off a Noel steal tied the game at 80, and a Barrett cutting layup in the next play gave the Knicks their first lead.

Thibodeau described the Rose-Quickley-Barrett alignment as a group that can break the defense down off the dribble.

“It gets you downhill. That group has good chemistry and play good together,” Thibodeau said. “We haven’t done it a lot but [RJ] has always played great with that group. It’s good to have more scoring punch in there.

It’s a small sample size, but in 14 possessions that Barrett played with the second unit this season, the Knicks had an offensive rating of 150.0 and +57.1 efficiency differential, according to Cleaning The Glass. In contrast, the second unit with Burks in place of Barrett had a 133.3 offensive rating and +15.2 differential in 30 possessions.

It all started with Rose picking up the slack as Walker struggled for the second consecutive game. Walker was 0 for 3 to start the game. He wound up 2 for 8 from the field in 15 minutes and finished with five points and a single assist.

The Knicks got outscored by 10 points with Walker on the floor. In contrast, the Knicks were plus-31 during Rose’s 31 minutes. Rose added eight rebounds, four assists, and two steals in easily his best game of the season.

Randle took the cue and had a monster double-double, grabbing 12 rebounds, and adding four assists. Barrett continued his strong offensive performance with 20 points, his fifth straight game scoring at least 20. Quickley also played solid off the bench with nine points on 4 of 9 shooting.

The Knicks met adversity with resiliency in a game that could define their season.

“It shows a lot about the character of the team,” Randle said. “Great confidence building for us. We just gotta keep building.”

“If anything, this can thrust us forward into the area that we want to be of consistency,” Rose added.

They still have a long way to go. Fournier and Walker are still plagued with inconsistency, a clear sign that they are still adjusting. Thibodeau relied on last season’s core group to pull them out of the deep hole. Now comes the more challenging part — staying out of that hole for good.

“You want to develop consistency in terms of how hard you play, how together you play, how smart you play. You want to be able to count on that every night,” Thibodeau said. “So if you let your guard down or if you just feel too good about yourself, you’re gonna get knocked down. Everyone’s fighting for the same thing. It’s how hard can we fight and how long can we fight.”

Rose fighting off the Bucks’ blitz in that particular play in the second quarter was symbolic of how the Knicks should move forward. As Thibodeau always says, “don’t fight pressure with pressure.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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