NEW YORK - Before the Knicks' grind-it-out, at times scintillating but mostly suffocating 96-84 win over the Detroit Pistons, Interim Head Coach Mike Miller spoke about how his team just needed to overcome the stretches where they couldn't put the ball in the basket.
According to him, it were those dry spells that tended to sap New York of its defensive intensity. With a roster short on elite shooting and individual shot creation, the solution was likely going to be resilient defense rather than some unexpected offensive explosion.
By hook or by crook, Miller got his wish. The Knicks scored under 100 points for the 20th time this season, but for only the third time among them, came out with a win, besting the equally offensively challenged Pistons, 96-84.
The tape from this one won't be on the first flight to Springfield, but for a Knick team that is in no position to turn away wins of any kind, it felt good to finish the home stand with a winning record.
In the locker room afterwards, the players, almost to a man, agreed that Friday's performance against Oklahoma City necessitated this very response.
"We didn't feel like we gave it our all," was the way Bobby Portis put it, also pointing out that they followed up that poor effort with "one of the best practices of the year." He cited a renewed sense of urgency and a positive mindset as reasons for the turnaround, and evoked a sense of professionalism that the group has maintained throughout its struggles. "This is our job."
Perhaps no one has done his job better of late than Knicks' center Mitchell Robinson, who had one of the highlight plays of the season after Elfrid Payton found him on a lob from beyond half court that brought down the house.
After the game, the man who threw the 21-year-old phenom that pass was unequivocal in his praise
"Nothing he does surprises me anymore" Robinson's fellow Louisiana native said from his locker, reflecting on the pass.
Payton, who had another stellar outing in his own right with 16 points, six assists and five boards, isn't bashful about predicting big things for a player he still think hasn't scratched the surface of his talent. "I think he's going to be great. He's still raw, and he dominates games."
For Robinson's part, it's hard to overstate the kid-in-a-candy-store vibe he gives off after games, almost as if a child was transplanted into the body of a seven-foot behemoth and given otherworldly powers to entertain himself with at his leisure. At one point, when asked about the getting the timing down on lobs, he looked up from putting on his sneakers and asked rhetorically, "When you can fly..."
No finality was needed, because everyone can see the results in real time.
He also has a steel trap memory, correcting SNY's Ian Begley, who thought that tonight was Robinson's first reverse alley-oop as a pro:
Robinson (14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks) and Julius Randle (22 points, 12 boards, three steals and only two turnovers) were New York's statistical leaders, but the biggest signs of progress for the night may have come from two Knicks who've struggled with their offensive games more often than not this year.
Neither Kevin Knox (seven points, two blocks and one steal) and Frank Ntilikina (seven points on 3-of-10 shooting) had eye-popping numbers, but both counted as bright spots for different reasons.
Knox, whose defense Mike Miller has praised often this year, had a sequence at the end of the second quarter that showed why the team would be better served remaining patient with the 20-year-old Kentucky product:
Knox also had an end-to-end one-man fast break in the second that resulted in a contested layup. His growth has been anything but linear, but signs are there for anyone who cares to see.
Ntilikina, meanwhile, showed a healthy bit of aggression, especially in the second half when he repeatedly attacked the basket, finally correcting the bug-a-boo that always seemed to irk his prior coach. The ones that dropped were met with the usual chorus of cheers from the Garden crowd, including this one that got virtually everyone out of their seat:
When asked about the aggression of his young players after the game, Mike Miller was clear that he was happy.
"All of the players know where there spots are, that if they get to their spots, those are good shots, or if it's in the flow, [those are good]," also saying how there is a "constant balance" between aggression and holding out for the best shot. "Good to great" is where he wants his guys to get to in terms of shot quality, and surely their overall games as well.
For the team, there is as positive an air about them as one can expect of a group that has 18 games remaining in what is now a 20-win campaign. With Leon Rose still getting his feet wet as president, there's no telling how much longer this group will be together, from the players right on up.
Perhaps Elfrid Payton said it best when, in speaking about Miller after the game, offered praise by saying that "he's given himself a chance" to remain head coach, but was also quick to add a caveat:
"Even if it's not here, he's going to be successful."
18 games and counting until an uncertain future officially begins.
Might as well make the most of it while they can.