The Knicks had started to look like an unlikely offensive force bridging the All-Star break, but Tom Thibodeau’s team leaned on its coach’s defensive principles Monday night to defeat the team that started the day with the best record in the NBA.
In its first of two measuring-stick matchups against the league-leading Celtics in a seven-day span, the Knicks tightened up in their own end and remained perfect since their deadline deal for Josh Hart with their sixth straight victory, 109-94, to loud eruptions of “Boston sucks” from the Garden fans.
Julius Randle and Immanuel Quickley scored 23 points apiece and Jalen Brunson netted 16 as the Knicks (36-27) moved a half-game ahead of the sinking Nets into the No. 5 playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
Hart again affected the game again in numerous sparkplug ways, finishing with 12 points, five assists, five boards and two key second-half steals in 26 minutes off the bench. Mitchell Robinson also recorded his third straight double-double (10 points and 13 rebounds) since returning from thumb surgery.
The Knicks are averaging 120.7 points while shooting 38 percent from 3-point distance during the winning streak.
Malcolm Brogdon scored a team-high 22 points but a frustrated Jayson Tatum was held to 14 before getting ejected in the fourth quarter with his second technical foul for the Celtics, who played without his fellow All-Star, Jaylen Brown (personal reasons).
With the loss, Boston fell into a virtual tie for the top spot in the East, albeit percentage points behind the streaking Bucks, who have won 14 consecutive games.
“Well, it shows you exactly where you are,” Thibodeau said before the game about facing the Celtics, who shot 9-for-42 from 3-point range. “I think they’ve had a great season. They were in the Finals last year. They’re strong on both sides of the ball. You’re looking at a team that’s top five. They play hard, they play unselfishly. So it’ll show you, you have to play for 48 minutes against them.”
The streaking Knicks also have been among the East’s top teams since altering their playing rotation in early December, going 26-14 over their past 40 games. They also will face the Nets at MSG on Wednesday, before road games against the No. 7 Heat (Friday) and Celtics again on Sunday.
Robinson enjoyed an active first quarter with a couple of dunks and a rejection of Tatum’s stuff attempt in the opening minutes. Randle also nailed a couple of early 3-pointers, converted a traditional three-point play and scored a dozen in the period as the Knicks built a 27-15 lead through 12 minutes.
Tatum clanked five of his six field-goal attempts as the Celtics shot 33.3 percent (7-for-21) in the quarter, the lowest point total allowed in the first by the Knicks this season.
Hart buried a corner trey and sank a circus-shot drive and Brunson converted an and-1 as the lead was pushed to 20 midway through the second quarter.
The Celtics responded with a 14-2 spurt to climb back within eight. RJ Barrett overcame a scoreless first quarter (0-for-5) with a pick-and-roll feed to Robinson for another dunk before Barrett scored eight straight Knick points (of his 10 overall) en route to a 60-46 lead at intermission.
Randle air-balled two 3s out of the break and the Celtics scored the first five points of the third quarter to close within nine. But five points by Quentin Grimes and a Randle triple helped extend the lead back to 17 halfway through the period. Tatum drew a technical foul late in the quarter, and the Knicks carried an 88-75 advantage into the fourth.
The Celtics got within 10 on Brogdon’s long-range connection with 7:29 remaining, but Hart fed Obi Toppin (nine points) for a dunk and Robinson followed with a tap-in on the offensive glass for a 100-86 barely one minute later.
Brunson had an offensive foul rescinded but was called for a technical foul via a lengthy video review for kicking out his leg on a jumper with 5:48 to go. Tatum sank the free throw, but Robinson’s offensive board and dunk put the Knicks back up by 13 with under five minutes to go.