Knicks tease with their ceiling in crucial win over LeBron-less Lakers

Despite the New York Knicks‘ inconsistent play recently, one thing stood out about them for Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel ahead of their Tuesday matchup.

“I think the biggest thing is the volume of threes they’re shooting,” Vogel said before the game. “Obviously, Julius Randle is an elite player. The volume of threes he’s been creating and the space they’re creating for him to attack one-on-one is probably the biggest difference between last year and this year’s team. And Kemba (Walker) and Evan (Fournier), being new additions, have been helping on that.”

Vogel’s thoughts were uncannily prescient. It played out the way he described it as the Knicks starters put together their best performance in a 106-100 win over the LeBron James-less Lakers in front of a soldout crowd at Madison Square Garden.

Julius Randle bullied Anthony Davis underneath for the game’s first basket. Then Fournier got hot outside while Walker and RJ Barrett joined the scoring fray as the Knicks zoomed to a 10-0 start and a 36-20 first-quarter lead.

The quartet scored all but two points in that mesmerizing opening that showed a glimpse of how good the Knicks can be when everything comes together for them. They combined to hit 11 of 18 shots. Nine of them came off assists. All five starters made an assist, with Randle and Walker handing out three each.

Their rampage continued at the onset of the second quarter. The Knicks bench, a picture of consistency and fluidity throughout the team’s rough start, padded the lead to 25.

For 15 glorious minutes, the Garden was Eden. Everybody eats when the Knicks are sharing the ball.

“I think if you have an unselfish team, they’re gonna recognize when someone gets hot or has a good matchup,” Thibodeau said after the game. “The ball always finds energy.”

“We’re doing the right things when we’re pushing the ball, and we’re attacking the rim. Oftentimes, those are the best shots that you can get. You get to drive, and then it’s pass, pass, and then you’re walking into a three so that it gives you good rhythm.”

Fournier walked into rhythm threes and hit 6 of 9. His hot shooting kept him in the game and avoided what could have been a ninth fourth-quarter benching. Fournier led the Knicks with 26 points, his best offensive performance since a career-high-tying 32 points during the season opener against the Boston Celtics.

“I’m trying to — regardless of what’s going on and how we play — I always try to focus on myself, look at myself and try to play the best I can,” Fournier said. “[I’m] trying to be aggressive, trying to take what’s in front of me, and be decisive in everything I do.”

Fournier took shots with no hesitations, unlike in the past when his pump fakes usually led to tough shots.

But as great as the Knicks looked for a one-and-a-half quarter, the ills that plagued them won’t just go away. Their offense got stagnant. Their energy on defense went down with it.

The Lakers came storming back and tied it at 79 on a Carmelo Anthony breakaway slam. With Derrick Rose out with a sprained ankle, Immanuel Quickley rose to the occasion. The second-year guard hit four back-breaking triples in the fourth quarter to seal the deal.

“This game is a perfect example of how we play. We are very capable of playing really, really good basketball, getting big leads,” Fournier said. “Then all of sudden, not so well.”

The Knicks have been consistently inconsistent. They have led by double-digits in 11 games this season. Three of them ended in a horrible loss, blowing a 13-point lead in their first loss to Orlando Magic, a 15-point lead to Toronto Raptors, and a 16-point lead against Charlotte Hornets. Then they nearly squandered double-digit leads in five of their 10 wins, including this one against the Lakers.

“We have to keep playing the same way [whether] up 20, down 15 or tied game,” Fournier said. “For us, I think the key is going to find that balance and that rhythm. We can really be good, man! We just have to trust how we play. And when we have [found] a way to play, just stay with it.”

Randle negated the flu-stricken Anthony Davis’ 20 points. Both forwards shot 7 for 17 from the floor. But Randle dominated the glass with 16 rebounds, 15 coming on the defensive end. Thanks to Randle’s Herculean effort, the Knicks outrebounded the bigger Lakers, 52-50.

The Knicks are rolling when their shots are falling like Tuesday night (15 of 34 from downtown).

Their roller-coaster season continued with another teaser of their ceiling.

Over the last five games, the Knicks’ defense has tightened up, giving up just 99.2 points per game. Despite winning only two of their previous five games, their offense has started to balance out, although in spurts. The common denominator in those two wins is that Fournier got it going while Randle only logged in three assists in two of those three losses. Randle had five assists, tied with Walker, against the Lakers.

The Knicks are 7-3 this season when Randle has at least five assists. Conversely, the Knicks are 1-5 when he only dishes three assists or less.

“Like I said before, [Evan’s] a huge part of our team. I’ll make sure that I establish him and Kemba. And everybody gets comfortable where we’re just going out there playing, and we know what’s going to happen, where our shots are going to come from,” Randle said. “We know that we have each other’s back on the defensive end. That’s what makes the game fun.”

Never mind if James (due to suspension) missed his only visit to the Madison Square Garden this season. Never mind if Davis, who woke up Tuesday with a slight fever, was not 100 percent. It could have been a different story. But what matters for the Knicks is picking up a galvanizing win that they hope can bring momentum as they continue a brutal stretch in their schedule.

They will host the red-hot Phoenix Suns, winners of their last 13 games, on Black Friday.

It will be another tough test for the Knicks’ starters, whose chemistry is starting to build up in recent games. Against the Lakers, the Knicks’ starting unit had 16 of the team’s 23 assists. The next step is building consistency.

“It definitely will develop. This is what, 18 games in? This sh*t takes time, bro,” Randle said. “The good thing about us is we’ve stayed encouraged. We stayed positive. We had highs, we’ve had lows. But once it starts clicking, we’re going to be a really, really good team.”

The Knicks were in the first quarter, just like how Vogel conjured that Lakers’ nightmare.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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