For a second-straight game, the New York Knicks were trailing by at least 15 points — this time 18 — on Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz.
For a second-straight game, those very same Knicks came back to win a game that they normally had no business of winning. But as has been said ad nauseam over the last year, these times are anything but normal, and these Knicks are not the horrendously-below-average Knicks of old.
While Julius Randle paved the way for a comeback against Utah, posting another monster game of 30 points and 16 rebounds to further build his early All-Star case, it was veteran guard Austin Rivers who went off and secured the Knicks’ fifth win in six games.
Rivers dropped 14-consecutive points in the fourth quarter to close things out in the 112-100 win, going 4-for-4 from three-point range with an additional floater as the shot clock expired to provide some much-needed breathing space in the final minutes.
“I’ve seen him do that before,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “When he gets going, he’s hard to stop. He’s got a lot of toughness to him. Mental toughness, physical toughness, and the courage to take those shots.”
It was the third-straight game that Rivers came up big down the stretch as a supplementary piece, providing the Knicks with a stable option to turn to in crunch time when the likes of Randle or RJ Barrett are down or covered.
“Everybody’s all in,” Rivers said after his 23-point night. “We just have to keep building and getting better for [the fans]. We’ve been feeling the positive energy. It’s early, we’re 5-3, we have a lot to do, but we haven’t done anything yet. We have to keep building.”
That 5-3 start is the best Knicks start in eight years, sparked by a stable of depth that is unassuming on paper, but is clicking on all cylinders under Thibodeau.
After rookie Immanuel Quickley starred down the stretch against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night, veteran Elfrid Payton posted 22 points and eight assists in 40 minutes. With Nerlens Noel encountering leg issues, Mitchell Robinson played a career-high 41 points, adding nine points, 13 rebounds, and three blocks.
“Elfrid was unbelievable. We needed our guys to play like that,” Thibodeau said. “Everyone is sacrificing something for the team… There’s a togetherness to the team, there’s a workmanship that allows the team to develop and get better every day and there’s a great spirit.
“When you look at the way this season is shaping up, whether it’s injury, the COVID protocol… you need everyone. At some point in the season, everyone is going to get a chance. And when they get that chance, we want them to be ready.”
So far, so good.