Tom Thibodeau often lauds his Knicks’ roster for its versatility, with the ability to run their offense through All-Star power forward Julius Randle and veteran guard Alec Burks, if needed.
Such a necessity never felt more immediate for the Knicks this season than it did Thursday night, when those two players fronted them to a nail-biting, 94-93 victory over Orlando with their top three point guards — Elfrid Payton, Derrick Rose and rookie Immanuel Quickley — all unavailable.
After suffering crushing road losses earlier this week against the Nets and the 76ers in their final possession, Reggie Bullock sealed the win for the undermanned Knicks with a strip of Evan Fournier in the closing seconds.
“Really important, we needed a win in a bad way and we knew we couldn’t leave without a win today, especially on our home court,” said Randle, whose second triple-double in six days and third of the season featured a career-high 17 assists. “So I’m proud of us, how we got it done. We won the game on the defensive end, like we have all year.
“I’m proud of our team. We had to get a win and that’s what we did.”
Randle also registered 18 points on 8-for-20 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds as the Knicks climbed back to .500 again at 21-21, matching last year’s win total (21-45). He became the first Knick to record at least three triple-doubles in one season since Micheal Ray Richardson posted seven in 1981-82.
“That’s what we’ve talked about from the beginning, when I mentioned to you guys about his leadership. It was a night he didn’t shoot the ball great, but he played great,” Thibodeau said. “He did different things for us. The 17 assists says it all, right there. He made everyone around him better, and we had to find a way to win.”
Burks moved into the starting lineup and netted 21 points with 10 rebounds, while Frank Ntilikina also started and finished with 13 points.
Bullock, usually a starter, also drilled six 3-pointers for 20 points in 36 minutes off the bench for the Knicks, who will face the first-place 76ers again at the Garden on Sunday.
“It’s all about the fight, and that’s a big part of this league,” Thibodeau said. “That’s what I love about these guys. … We’re starting to see the results of all the preparation and extra work people are putting in.”
The sliding Magic (nine straight losses) got back Fournier (23 points) and Aaron Gordon (17) from injuries, but they also were thin at the point guard spot — playing without Markelle Fultz (knee), Michael-Carter Williams (illness) and rookie Cole Anthony (ribs).
The Knicks didn’t have Payton (hamstring) or Rose (health and safety protocols), as well as the continued absence of starting center Mitchell Robinson (hand). Quickley was added to that injury list Thursday night, sitting out with an ankle issue suffered Tuesday against the 76ers.
“That’s exactly it, we have more than enough to win with, and we have guys that can play multiple positions,” Thibodeau said. “When you’re called upon, get out there and play well.”
The Knicks led by as many as 16 points in the third, before a 19-2 Magic run gave them a 75-74 lead barely one minute into the final quarter. The Knicks regained the lead on Ntilikina’s corner 3-pointer with 3:49 remaining, and Randle sank two jumpers as part of a 10-0 surge for a 92-87 lead with under two minutes to play.
The Magic won a late jump ball after tying up Bullock, and they had a chance to win the game in their final possession. But Bullock intercepted Fournier’s pass attempt with 5.9 seconds remaining.
“Coach always talks about ‘next man up,’ and everyone that was inserted tonight had an effect on the game,” Bullock said. “It definitely was important for us to close this one out.
“We had two hard-fought games our last two losses, so we definitely had to pick this one up and start building while we’re back home for a [four-game] stretch and pull out a win.”