If Tom Thibodeau’s latest tweaks to the Knicks’ rotation were aimed to prioritize his long-time coaching staple of stingy defense, the results have followed suit.
The Knicks held an opponent under 90 points for a second consecutive game for the first time this season, and not coincidentally came away with another home victory against a team in the top six in the Eastern Conference standings with a thorough 113-89 shutdown Wednesday night of Trae Young and the Hawks at the Garden.
Julius Randle enjoyed what Thibodeau called “a monster game,” nailing six 3-pointers to lead the Knicks with 34 points and 17 rebounds. Recent starter Quentin Grimes also continued his strong two-way play with five 3s and a season-high 23 points on 8-for-11 shooting in 31 minutes after he’d logged 40 minutes in Sunday’s 92-81 win in a defensive shutdown over Donovan Mitchell and the Cavaliers.
“Well, I think you can see the combination of the way he plays defense and he’s starting to get his rhythm on offense,” Thibodeau said of Grimes, who was in and out of the lineup for the first several weeks of the regular season with a foot injury suffered in training camp. “He shoots the 3, he reads closeouts well. And I thought Deuce [McBride] gave us really good minutes defensively as well.
“And I think that’s important for us. Every night there’s going to be guys on the perimeter that are very difficult to guard. So the better we guard the ball, the better that makes us.”
RJ Barrett added 15 points for the Knicks, who held Young and the Hawks to a dismal 6-for-36 shooting night (16.7 percent) from 3-point range to improve to 12-13 ahead of Friday’s visit to Charlotte.
With Grimes often used as his primary defender, Young missed all four of his 3-point attempts but netted 19 points to lead the Hawks (13-12).
“He’s one of the best guards every night. He’s a tough matchup,” Grimes said. “I feel like I like making it hard for somebody to score on me, just look at it as a personal challenge, more of a pride thing. So I feel like I can take on the challenge of whoever it is, really.”
Hawks guard Dejounte Murray notably left the game in the first quarter with a sprained left ankle and did not return. He finished with two points in four minutes after lighting up the Knicks in his first Garden appearance earlier this season.
McBride was plus-19 over 27 minutes off the bench in Thibodeau’s revised nine-man rotation, contributing three points and six assists. Derrick Rose and Cam Reddish didn’t play for the second consecutive game, while Evan Fournier sat out his 12th in a row since his last appearance on Nov. 13.
Young, who took the floor wearing blue and orange sneakers with “King of Broadway” written on the heel, typically was booed when introduced beforehand, although it was his new starting backcourt mate Murray who had torched the Knicks for 36 points, nine assists and five steals in the Hawks’ previous visit to MSG on Nov. 2.
Barrett committed a flagrant foul on Murray three minutes into the game, however, and the 2022 All-Star was done for the night soon after nailing the technical free throws.
“We knew we had a lot to do with Trae and Dejounte, even though he got hurt, but we were able to help on them and then get out to their shooters,” Randle said.
Grimes and McBride certainly have impacted the team’s improved perimeter defense the last two games. The Knicks held Cleveland to a 34.9 overall shooting percentage and 22.9 percent (8-for-35) from 3-point range Sunday.
Grimes also drained a 3 and added a couple of nifty finishes at the rim en route to a dozen points in the first half, helping the Knicks build a 53-41 lead by intermission.
The crowd delighted in Young drawing a technical foul for complaining to the officials in the third quarter, and Randle sank two late 3-pointers as the Knicks pushed the score to 89-67 entering the final period.
“I think we just put a whole 48 minutes together, really,” Grimes said. “The last two games we’ve put together a full 48 minutes of good basketball.”