Steve Kerr praised Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks as “a typical Thibs team” on Thursday, gushing they’ve been “defending like crazy” while “building a foundation” toward finally reemerging as a winning ballclub.
Such strong words from the three-time NBA championship coach had to mean so much more after the Knicks opened a four-game western swing with a sharp 119-104 win over Kerr’s Warriors in San Francisco. It was their third straight defensively sturdy victory — following a five-game losing skid — to even their record at 8-8.
“It means we’ve got a lot of work to do. We can’t feel good, we’ve got to keep working,” Thibodeau said after the game. “It’s a long season. You’ve got to go step by step. There are some things we’ve done well. We’ve had some good wins. But we’ve also had some games where we could’ve played a lot better in.
“So we have to be honest with ourselves and know there’s a lot of work to be done and we’re capable of improving and doing a lot better. That’s our challenge.”
RJ Barrett netted 18 of his career-high 28 points in the first half, while Julius Randle continued to build his All-Star résumé with nearly his second triple-double of the season (16 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists).
“We just worry about us … and we come into every game feeling we should win the game or give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Randle said after the Knicks improved to 5-4 on the road. “I think we’ve got a good team and are playing good team basketball.”
Backup center Nerlens Noel recorded four of the Knicks’ nine blocked shots, Mitchell Robinson scored all of his 18 points after halftime and Alec Burks contributed 11 points in 31 minutes off the bench in his first game since suffering a sprained ankle on Dec. 27.
Stephen Curry finished with a game-high 30 points, but the two-time MVP committed four turnovers and missed nine of 14 attempts from 3-point range. Golden State (8-7) played the final two quarters without Draymond Green after he earned his second technical foul just before intermission.
“A guy like Curry is impossible to guard with one guy. I thought Elfrid [Payton] did as good a job as you possibly can,” Thibodeau said. “What you’re trying to do is make him work as hard as you can for everything. He missed some shots that he probably normally makes, and I think being shorthanded, we loaded up on him pretty much from the point that Draymond got thrown out.”
Reggie Bullock (12 points) nailed three 3-pointers in the first four minutes and combined with Barrett for 23 points in the first quarter, as the Knicks shot 54.5 percent from the floor and grabbed a 40-31 lead — their highest scoring output for any quarter this season.
Curry, the NBA’s third-leading scorer (28.1 ppg) entering the game, was held scoreless for the first eight minutes until finally converting a three-point play late in the period.
Randle answered with a three-point play for the Knicks, and Curry missed his free throw after Payton (15 points) hacked him while draining a 26-footer from beyond the arc. But Payton nailed a 3 to snap a 55-55 tie en route to a 63-57 Knicks lead through two quarters.
Robinson dunked twice and scored the first nine of his 18 second-half points in the third as the Knicks extended their lead to 89-76 entering the final quarter.
The first of two baseline dunks by rookie Obi Toppin and a 3-pointer by fellow first-round pick Immanuel Quickley put the Knicks ahead by 16 barely three minutes into the fourth.
“I’ve said this from the beginning, I love our young guys, particularly with their attitude and their approach,” Thibodeau said. “Every day they come in with a lot of energy. Some days we make mistakes. But the next day there’s a determination to correct mistakes and get better. If we do that each and every day, we’ll continue to grow.”