The players telling Jeff Hornacek that they do believe they can make the playoffs wasn’t the best thing he heard Wednesday night in Boston. The fact that they backed it up with one of their best efforts of the season proved it wasn’t just hollow talk.
No, the best thing that Hornacek heard came out of the Celtics locker room, from a frustrated Isaiah Thomas, who said the Knicks “punked us” and “played harder than us at both ends of the floor.”
Honestly, when was the last time anyone said that about the Knicks?
Amid the controversy of Carmelo Anthony and his discussions with Phil Jackson about his future and lineup changes that sent offseason free agent acquisition Courtney Lee to the bench, Hornacek saw his team finally show a toughness he’s been begging for since training camp.
Now to see if he can continue to get that kind of effort on a consistent basis. The Knicks (19-24) are two games out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference with 39 games left in the season. Plenty of time to make a run, but the time to start is now.
“We hope this is it,” Hornacek said.
Maybe Hornacek found something with his lineup moves. Moving Lee to the bench looked like a demotion, but was it? Lee seemed to thrive with the second unit, as he had the ball in his hands more often and filled the stat sheet (9 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists) and still played 38 minutes.
With Kristaps Porzingis (Achilles) and Joakim Noah (ankle) out, he kept an ineffective starting center Kyle O’Quinn on the bench and went with the energy of Willy Hernangomez (17 points, 11 rebounds) and the tireless Marshall Plumlee (5 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and 5 fouls in a career-high 20:11 minutes). The Knicks’ bench scored 55 points.
Melo (13 points) was almost an afterthought in this game and sat for the first half of the fourth quarter while the Knicks built their lead up. There was some thought as to whether or not Hornacek would bring Melo (5 for 14 shooting) back into the game, but he did return to finish the final five minutes.
Derrick Rose (30 points, 10 rebounds) spearheaded the offense. Even without Noah, the Knicks grabbed 18 offensive rebounds and scored 24 second-chance points.
Has there been a shift within this team? That will be interesting to watch, especially when Porzingis — who is getting an MRI on the Achilles — returns to the lineup. Hornacek has already said KP will play the center position so Melo remains at power forward.
But after Porzingis, where does Hornacek turn? Plumlee’s energy, toughness and hustle can not be undervalued. Watch any highlight with him on the court and he’s in constant motion and constantly making physical contact with opposing players. It is subtle, but it impacts the game.