Twice in the previous 10 days, the Knicks had wasted opportunities to push their record to the .500 mark in unsightly losses to the Magic and Warriors.
They appeared headed for another blown chance to even their record and move up in the crowded Eastern Conference on Saturday night. Tom Thibodeau’s surging squad stormed back from a 16-point deficit in the first half, however, and moved into a tie for fourth place in the playoff standings with a gritty 110-107 win over the Pacers at the Garden.
“We didn’t start the game well, it was funky, and we had to work our way through it,” Thibodeau said. “It’s a long game, but the most important thing was just finding a way to win at the end.
“We had a lot of guys step up and make big plays. … We just scratched it out.”
RJ Barrett clanked two free throws with 14.6 seconds remaining, but Derrick Rose’s steal and Frank Ntilikina’s two free throws with 2.9 seconds to go sealed the Knicks’ sixth win in eight games as they improved to 17-17. They notably started last season 17-42 and finished with 21 wins in 66 games.
Big man Taj Gibson suffered a sprained left ankle in the first quarter and did not return. Starting center Mitchell Robinson already is sidelined following hand surgery.
Rose started in place of Elfrid Payton (hamstring) for a second straight game and scored 17 points with 11 assists and five steals for the Knicks, who will visit the conference-worst Pistons (9-24) on Sunday night.
All-Star forward Julius Randle also filled up the stat sheet again with 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, including two key free throws in the final minute. Barrett scored 24 and Immanuel Quickley finished with 10 in 13 minutes — including his second four-point play in as many games in the fourth quarter — as the Knicks took the season series (2-1) from Indiana.
Myles Turner’s 3-pointer put the Pacers up 94-91 with 6:37 remaining, and his drive extended the lead to five with barely four minutes to go. But Barrett connected on his fourth 3-pointer of the night and then converted a traditional three-point play to regain the lead for the Knicks at the 3:32 mark.
Randle also scored from long range and Barrett added an inside scoop for a 104-98 game with 2:22 to go. The Pacers climbed back within with the next five points, but Nerlens Noel sank two free throws following a steal for eight points in a season-high 41 minutes.
Randle’s fellow All-Star power forward, Domantas Sabonis, was held to 15 points for the Pacers, who played without point guard Malcolm Brogdon (knee) for the first time this season. Former Knicks Doug McDermott (20 points) and Justin Holiday (13) combined for 33 for Indiana (15-17).
To begin the day, the teams in fourth place and 10th place in the East were separated by one game, but the Knicks moved into a tie with the idle Raptors.
“It’s a long season and that’s what we have to understand,” Thibodeau said. “Every game is equally important. One game doesn’t take on more meaning than another. They all count the same. Wherever you end up, that can be the difference between a lot of things.”
The Knicks missed their first five shots and spotted Indiana an 8-0 lead, with Holiday nailing a couple of early 3-pointers to prompt Thibodeau to call a quick timeout barely two minutes into the game.
The Knicks, who scored 77 points by halftime and a season-high 140 overall in Thursday’s win over the Kings, trailed by as many as 16 in the half. But their defense keyed a 24-6 closing run, culminated by Rose’s straightaway three at the buzzer for a 54-52 lead at intermission.
The spurt also featured Quickley’s second 3-pointer of the half, two dunks by Randle and two more makes from downtown by Barrett.
Barrett’s breakaway dunk with four minutes left in the third, a Rose free throw following a technical foul called on Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren and seven straight points by Randle helped the Knicks carry an 81-78 lead into the final quarter.