RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley were teenagers the last time the New York Knicks were at the .500 mark at least 30 games into a season.
On Wednesday night, the promising youngsters will try to help the Knicks take their next step in a surprisingly swift march to respectability when New York visits the Orlando Magic.
The Knicks moved within a game of .500 by earning their third straight win Monday night, when Julius Randle scored 44 points in a 123-112 victory over the visiting Atlanta Hawks. The Magic ended a four-game trip Sunday with a 109-90 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Barrett (21 points) and Quickley (16 points) were the second- and third-leading scorers Monday as New York improved to 14-15 and moved into sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks, who haven’t reached the playoffs since 2013, can get to .500 this late in the schedule for the first time since Dec. 30, 2017, when they were 18-18 following a 105-103 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Knicks went just 11-35 the remainder of the season before going 17-65 in 2018-19 and 21-45 during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 campaign, when they didn’t get to 15 wins until the 51st game.
But first-year Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau’s emphasis on defense and discipline has paid immediate dividends for New York, which has allowed an NBA-low 103.6 points per game this season.
“(Thibodeau’s) attention to detail is unbelievable,” Randle said Monday night. “We go into games so prepared, like every game is a playoff game. That’s how good he is. He’s a complete culture-changer for sure. He’s held everyone accountable. We’re all enjoying the process.”
Enjoyment has been in short supply lately for Orlando, which opened the season 6-2 but is just 4-16 since Markelle Fultz suffered a season-ending knee injury Jan. 6.
The injuries have continued to pile up for Orlando, which had just eight players available Sunday. James Ennis was sidelined with a groin injury suffered last Friday while Al-Farouq Aminu (hamstring) and Cole Anthony (shoulder) also were out. Frank Mason, who replaced Anthony as the starting point guard, hurt his groin Thursday and was released a day later. On Sunday, the Magic started 30-year-old Terrence Ross at point guard — his first start since Nov. 25, 2017.
The Magic trailed wire-to-wire Sunday but managed to cut a 26-point fourth-quarter deficit to 14. Orlando took some solace in its defensive performance on a road trip in which it went 1-3 while allowing 112 points or less in every game against the Suns, Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors — all of whom occupied a playoff spot entering play Tuesday — and the Sacramento Kings.
“These last four games, particularly in terms of having a way to play that will give us a chance to be more consistent — except for early in the year when we had everybody — these are the best four games that we’ve played,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said Sunday night. “Good teams, on the road. Even (Sunday) we made the run to put their starters back in. The first three games, we put ourselves in position to win.”
–Field Level Media