As shorthanded as the Knicks have been in recent games, things could have turned far worse — even disastrous — for Tom Thibodeau’s club.
Mitchell Robinson had the home crowd on its feet with several athletic plays at both ends in the fourth quarter, however, as the undermanned Knicks held off the team with the NBA’s worst record Tuesday night at the Garden. The Knicks allowed a 22-point lead to be cut to five before pulling out a 105-91 win over the Pistons to finally end their five-game home losing streak.
Robinson finished with 17 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots in the Knicks’ first home win since Nov. 23 over the Lakers.
Evan Fournier scored 22 points, Julius Randle registered 21 with 11 rebounds and Kemba Walker also scored 21 as six players — RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes, Kevin Knox, Miles McBride and Immanuel Quickley — remained out due to the league’s health and safety protocols.
Derrick Rose also missed his second consecutive game with a sore right ankle, meaning Walker — who scored 29 points in 37 minutes in Saturday’s loss in Boston — was in the starting lineup again following a nine-game benching. The Bronx native scored nine of his 21 points in the final quarter and added eight rebounds and five assists over 39 minutes.
Detroit guard Saben Lee scored 15 points, including a three-point play that drew the Pistons within five with 8:55 remaining. But Robinson responded with a dynamic two-minute stretch in which he recorded a dunk, a put-back bucket and two blocked shots, including on a 3-point attempt by Lee, to propel the Knicks on a 12-2 run to push the lead back to 15.
No. 1-overall pick Cade Cunningham missed 11 of 13 shots and finished with seven points for the league-worst Pistons (5-25). Detroit was without injured forwards Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk and guard Killian Hayes — albeit none due to COVID issues — as well as head coach Dwane Casey (personal reasons).
All of the Knicks — and 95 percent of the league’s players — have been vaccinated for COVID-19, but more than 70 NBA players were in protocols as of Tuesday, with seven games already postponed in the past week and the league revamping its rules to allow decimated teams to sign emergency replacements.
“I think there’s so many variables to this season that you just take it day by day,” Tom Thibodeau said before the game. “You know the one thing about the league in general is there’s always change, but to this degree is different.
“And then it becomes how quickly can we adapt? That’s the challenge for us. Just find a way. Understand what goes into winning, and that the same things go into winning. And just whoever is called upon, get in there and get the job done.”
The league also sent out a memo Tuesday morning informing teams that are scheduled to play Christmas games — including the Knicks against the Hawks at noon — they should be prepared for a potential time change if any of the games in the later time slots are forced to be postponed due to the virus outbreak.
Still, NBA commissioner Adam Silver also told ESPN that the league has “no plans right now” to follow the NHL’s lead in temporarily pausing its season due to COVID concerns.
The Knicks connected on just two of their first eight 3-point attempts, but they closed the first quarter on a 15-3 run, including five points apiece by Taj Gibson and Robinson.
Fournier netted five points as the Knicks pumped in the first 11 of the third to double a 48-37 halftime lead to 22, before the Pistons closed to within 80-69 entering the final quarter.
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