With Miami (39-31) and Atlanta (40-41) costing to easy victories earlier, there was immense pressure in New York. And with their backs against the wall, the Knicks delivered just like they always did for the most part of the season.
Down 17 late in the third quarter, RJ Barrett rediscovered his shooting touch as the Knicks turned back San Antonio Spurs, 102-98, Thursday night to stay in the hunt for a top-four finish.
“We definitely want that fourth seed,” Barrett said. “We want that homecourt (advantage).”
Barrett waxed hot with 12 points in a 21-2 Knicks run, bridging the last 3:45 of the third quarter and the first minute of the fourth period.
Alec Burks punctuated that run with a 3, finishing off what Barrett has started.
Burks scored 16 of his season-high 30 points in the fourth quarter. There was no sign of rust in his return from a three-game layoff due to contused knee. His three-pointer with 3:16 remaining broke the 90-deadlock. He hit another one to extend the Knicks’ lead to four after a DeMar DeRozan basket.
Burks’ explosion off the bench cushioned the impact of Derrick Rose‘s absence. Rose (ankle), who played a season-high 39 minutes in their previous game, was a late scratch. But Tom Thibodeau later revealed it’s nothing serious.
“[He] just needed a day [off],” Thibodeau said about Rose’s situation. “It’s day-to-day. We knew we’re getting a couple of guys back. So we thought it would be good to give him a rest.”
They almost regret it with the Spurs staggering them behind DeRozan’s sweet midrange game and Dejounte Murray hunting the Knicks’ backcourt.
Then Barrett decided to take over and kept the Knicks’ homecourt bid alive.
”He hit big shot after big shot to help make up ground for us,” Thibodeau said of Barrett’s bounce-back performance.
Julius Randle clocked in his usual all-around game (25 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists) and knocked down a clutch jumper with 56.4 seconds left for a 98-94 Knicks’ cushion.
After Keldon Johnson’s three-point play closed the gap, 98-97, Burks and Barrett sealed the win with four free throws.
Barrett finished with 24 points, nine rebounds, and five assists to bounce back from his eight-point dud against the Los Angeles Lakers. He was 5-for-9 from the three-point zone.
Burks added 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the season.
”He’s like a swiss-army knife. We could use him in multiple positions. You can run him to catch-and-shoot. He can run the pick-and-roll. He can post up. There are so many things you can do with him. And he fits wherever you want. He can start or play with the bench,” Thibodeau said of Burks.
Taj Gibson was also exceptional off the bench as he tallied nine rebounds, four blocks, and six points in 22 minutes.
“We have the right veterans. Those guys have been great for our young guys. They made this team function at a very high level,” Thibodeau said.
Aside from minor hiccups, the Knicks have been playing their best basketball in the homestretch.
They are looking to sweep their back-to-back matinee games against the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday and Boston Celtics on Sunday while hoping for a Heat loss to jump back to No. 4. But on top of that, they aim to stay sharp as they brace for their first playoffs appearance in eight years.
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