New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau made his final instruction loud and clear.
“Make the shot. End the game. Get the win.”
Julius Randle and the Knicks followed it to the letter.
Randle beat the buzzer with a fallaway jumper to complete the Knicks’ furious 19-point comeback, 115-113, over the Washington Wizards Friday night in front of a roaring 12,258 Madison Square Garden crowd.
With the game hanging in the balance in a preseason finale that had the intensity of a win-or-go-home playoff game, Randle’s game-winner set the tone for one of the most anticipated seasons in New York Knicks history.
“We didn’t want to leave any time on the clock,” Thibodeau said. “It’s a huge shot. It’s a great game for us because we had to navigate through a lot of things and just finding a way to win in the end is the most important thing.”
The Knicks dug deep to pull this one out.
Thibodeau got a technical foul. Taj Gibson fouled out. Mitchell Robinson had to play big minutes in his first game back since March 27.
The plan was to let Robinson’s feet get wet. But he did more than that. The 23-year old center dunked hard and flexed his newly gained muscle on his way to six points, nine rebounds, and two steals.
But still, the Knicks stared at a 13-point deficit with 6:54 left in the game. With the Wizards seemingly answering every Knicks’ rally even without their star Bradley Beal in the entire second half, Thibodeau made one last gamble. He inserted Randle back into the game to replace a gassed Robinson, who played 26 minutes.
After the Randle-Obi Toppin frontcourt yielded mixed results in the past, it turned out to be an ace up his sleeve this time. The finishing lineup of Derrick Rose, rookie Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Toppin, and Randle outscored the Wizards, 29-14, that preserved the Knicks’ perfect preseason.
That small ball lineup pushed the ball, played with pace and space on offense, and rotated quickly on defense.
“I thought Washington played really well and then finally we caught a little rhythm in the fourth (quarter), dug our way out of the hole,” Thibodeau said. And that [small ball] team was hustling like crazy, flying around, got going into the open floor a little bit then made plays, made some big shots.”
Rose, Grimes, and Toppin played the entire fourth quarter posting 17 net plus-minus.
Rose scattered 14 of his game-high 28 points and dished out three of his six assists in the final 12 minutes. During that stretch, Grimes hit a big three-pointer and was all over the court, adding three rebounds, two assists, and two steals that impressed Thibodeau.
“I thought Quentin gave us some really good minutes. I thought Obi and Julius were terrific,” Thibodeau said. “That group that we finished with was good. And that’s the way the season goes. There’s a lot of different things that happen and then you start to search when you get in a hole like that and you find something.”
Small-ball center Randle scored 11 points in the final 6:54 of the game. He finished with a double-double (21 points, 10 rebounds) in 35 minutes. Toppin had seven points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter. The second-year forward tallied nine points, eight rebounds, three assists and three blocks in easily his best game yet.
The Wizards still had a 10-point lead with 4:01 left, but then the Knicks found their mark from the outside. Barrett, Rose, Grimes, and Randle hit one three-pointer after another down the stretch.
After hitting only 11 of their first 37 tries, the Knicks made four of their last five to end up with a 35.7 percent mark.
Barrett had another efficient night going 4 for 6 from deep and 7 of 14 overall for 18 points.
After endlessly shuffling the deck in a game that was slipping away, Thibodeau found an ace with that finishing group that he thought he never had.
“It’s very positive. It’s good to know that we have that as part of what we can do,” Thibodeau said. “And that’s what I like about our team is the versatility of guys playing multiple positions. We could give you a completely different look with Julius at the five, Obi at the four. Obviously, offensively we’re a lot better but I think we found something particularly with Quentin in there. I think he gives us another winged defender that is really good.”
Grimes seized the opportunity when Alec Burks was given the night off. The rookie out of the University of Houston came to the NBA with a reputation as a solid 3-and-D prospect. He overcame a jittery start to finish with six points, two rebounds, two assists, and two steals while cooling off Raul Neto’s hot hands. Grimes held Neto to six points in the fourth quarter after the Washington backup guard scored 19 points in the first three quarters, stepping up for Beal, who exited the game with a knee contusion.
Knicks new starting backcourt Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier combined for 20 points and nine assists, but they were also a combined 7 of 19 from the floor. They watched on the bench as the Knicks made the run in the fourth quarter.
Their chemistry with the starting unit is still a work in progress. Thibodeau said it would come in time as they play more together. But he wanted his new backcourt to play to their strengths.
“I thought Evan and also Kemba is almost a little too unselfish. When the ball is coming to them, I want them to be who they are. I don’t want them trying to fit in and then they get themselves out of rhythm,” said Thibodeau.
A perfect record in the preseason doesn’t mean anything. But to Thibodeau, it means something.
“The thing for us is the games are like tests. And so the things that you’re working on in practice, you want to see what it looks like in a game. So it tells you something,” Thibodeau said.
Four preseason games. Four different challenges. In each game, the Knicks learned more about themselves and the ones that needed more work.
“The whole idea is you begin with the end in mind. So in the end, what do we need? We want to be playing with our best basketball at the end of the year. There are no shortcuts to this,” Thibodeau said. “It’s day after the day.”
On Friday night, they took a step forward to that goal, playing their best basketball at the end of the game.
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