DENVER — So much for this being the road trip from hell. It’s been more like a joyful vacation so far for the Knicks.
They left New York on Sunday reeling, and three nights later, they found themselves on the road, sweeping a challenging back-to-back in Utah and Denver with two big-time fourth quarter performances.
Led by Julius Randle’s best game of the season, and the defense standing tall with the game on the line, the Knicks rallied from 10 down in the fourth quarter to knock off the Nikola Jokic-less Nuggets, 106-103, on Wednesday night at a stunned Ball Arena for the franchise’s first win in Denver in 16 years.
Randle’s free throw with 50.6 seconds left gave the Knicks the lead for good, and Immanuel Quickley played lock-down defense on Jamal Murray in the final seconds to preserve the win.
“Julius Randle, Julius Randle and Julius Randle,” Jalen Brunson said, when asked his initial thoughts of the dramatic victory.
“It’s us sticking together, staying together and believing,” said Randle, who like several other Knicks, played despite being under the weather.
Randle was a monster, notching 34 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and four steals. Brunson hit two clutch free throws with 10.5 seconds left and finished with 21 points and seven assists. Derrick Rose added 13 points off the bench for the Knicks, who improved to 8-7 and survived a nightmarish shooting night from an ill RJ Barrett (4-for-18). Murray and Bones Hyland each had 21 for the Nuggets (9-5).
Tuesday, the Knicks shut down the Jazz over the first part of the fourth quarter. Wednesday, they limited Denver to just seven points over the final 8:44. Their maligned defense has come alive on the road in winning time.
“We’ve been together,” Brunson said. “Like I said yesterday, we’re playing with a sense of urgency and desperation.”
Just when it seemed like the Knicks were dead in the water, down 10 with 8:06 left, Randle checked back in and they went on a tear behind the Randle-Obi Toppin lineup. Randle engineered a 17-2 run that included seven points from him, two steals and the big man diving for a loose ball to set up a Brunson dunk.
“Ju’ coming in, getting on the floor, changed the game,” said Cam Reddish, a major factor on the defensive end in that final quarter. “That energy and the effort meant a lot.”
When Brunson told him he had to dunk it for him, Randle was confused. He didn’t think Brunson could do that.
“Wow. I’ve got to look at the tape, man,” Randle said, smiling. “I don’t believe it.”
After Reddish finished off a drive, the Knicks held a five-point edge with 2:00 remaining. Hyland responded with five straight points to get the Nuggets even with 1:05 to go, forcing a Knicks timeout.
Brunson missed on the ensuing possession, but Randle drew a loose ball foul on Jeff Green, and put the Knicks back on top to stay. Now they get a well-deserved day off before facing the defending champion Warriors, needing just one more win to clinch what would be a very surprising winning road trip.
“It’s good, but we’ve got to keep it going. Great start to the trip,” Randle said. “But we feel like when we play the way we played, and it starts on the defensive end for us, we give ourselves a shot every night.”