On the final possession, Isaiah Hartenstein had heard the word from his coach so many times that it became ingrained in his mind.
Hands up in a contest, arms vertically raised, preventing the shot without fouling. And Hartenstein did Tom Thibodeau proud on Tuesday night.
“‘Verticality. Verticality,’ Thibs screams all the time,” Hartenstein said. “Just being vertical was going through my mind. Try to dunk it no matter what he does. Maintain a vertical posture. If he does what he did, he will get a foul. My main focus was on staying vertical.”
In the final seconds of the Knicks’ 105-103 victory, Hartenstein’s defence stopped Donovan Mitchell’s drive, providing the backup centre with a highlight to counteract much of his struggles this season. It was especially notable because the opponent was Mitchell, the All-Star whom the Knicks attempted and failed to acquire via trade during the offseason.
Mitchell’s presence reminded fans of what the Knicks had missed. And he was shoving it in their faces at MSG while leading a fourth-quarter comeback.
But Mitchell was not the hero. Hartenstein and Julius Randle were there.
“We dropped a few that we felt like we obviously should win, but for us to respond like that, obviously it’s a tough matchup with Cleveland. “It was fantastic,” Randle said.
The Knicks avoided a fourth-quarter collapse and ended a four-game losing streak thanks to Randle’s 36-point, 13-rebound performance and Hartenstein’s block.
Mitchell finished with 24 points in 38 minutes on 9 of 24 shooting but limped off the court in the final seconds after appearing to suffer a leg cramp.
The dramatic ending resulted from the Knicks blowing an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter. Then, with 15 seconds remaining, RJ Barrett missed a wide-open three-point attempt.
This left Cleveland with a two-point deficit on its final possession. Mitchell drove into the paint and was met by Hartenstein at the rim. Mitchell double-pumped in midair while looking for a foul, sensing that Hartenstein was too big to dunk over.
Hartenstein’s verticality was effective. It was the best moment of Hartenstein’s brief Knicks career, and a small measure of redemption after a difficult season.
“It’s kind of why I came here,” Hartenstein, who signed as a free agent this summer, said. “I recognise that I’m not playing as well as I should be. I feel like I’m letting the fans and the city down a little bit. But I’m going to keep improving because I know I can do it. So keep working hard and representing New York.”
Mitchell grabbed his own rebound and threw it out to Evan Mobley, who missed a turnaround at the buzzer after the attempt around Hartenstein bounced weakly off the front of the rim.
“If you put a number in the win column, you’re always thinking you’re getting better,” Jalen Brunson explained. “The best thing about this game, it wasn’t the cleanest, it wasn’t the smoothest, but we found a way to grind it out and get a win. It’s easy to win games when everyone is clicking and the ball is going in the hoop, but this is a good stepping stone for us to win games when things aren’t going your way.”
Immanuel Quickley rejoined the lineup after missing Sunday’s loss in Toronto due to a strained knee. He played 27 minutes and scored nine points.
Meanwhile, Evan Fournier was unavailable due to personal obligations – the birth of his son. With Quickley healthy, he wouldn’t have played anyway.
The Cavs (29-20) are having a good season but have struggled on the road, going 9-15. At home, the Knicks struggled. As a result, something had to give. And it was the Cavaliers, who have lost at MSG twice this season.
BRUNSON HONORED BY NOVA
Jalen Brunson’s jersey will be retired by Villanova during its game against DePaul on February 8.
Brunson won two national championships with the Wildcats in three years and was named National Player of the Year in 2018.
“Jalen had one of the most incredible Villanova Basketball careers ever,” said Villanova coach Kyle Neptune in a statement. “His remarkable will and work ethic left an indelible mark on our programme. He established a standard of excellence both on and off the court that continues to influence us today. We can’t wait to toast Jalen’s legendary Villanova career with the rest of the Nova Nation.”
Two days after the ceremony, the Knicks play the Sixers in Philadelphia, which is about a 30-minute drive from Villanova.
BRAND NEW ALL-STAR FORMAT
The NBA has announced that the All-Star draught will take place immediately before tip-off. As if it were a true pickup game.
The two team captains, who will most likely be LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo based on fan votes, will select from a pool of All-Stars.
The captains drafted their team 10 days before the game last year.
The Knicks have two All-Star candidates in Brunson and Randle, but neither has received enough votes to earn a starting spot and will have to be selected as a reserve by the coaches.