NEW YORK — Not much about the New York Knicks‘ win over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday was pretty, but New York head coach Jeff Hornacek pushed enough of the right buttons to help New York get back to .500 — and avoid another embarrassing loss.
Hornacek played seldom-used shooting guard Ron Baker to bother Kent Bazemore and Marco Bellineli. He went to a small lineup early in the fourth quarter to counter the Hawks’ center-free starting five as New York built a seven-point lead before the starters returned. And, later, Hornacek decided to foul with the Hawks down three in the final seconds instead of giving them a chance to tie the game — a decision that helped the Knicks walk off the floor with a 111-107 win.
“We’re happy we got that win,” Hornacek said afterward.
The Knicks don’t get the win without strong play from their bench.
Doug McDermott had 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting, Kyle O’Quinn (four points, four assists, five rebounds) and Frank Ntilikina (eight points, three steals, one assists, three rebounds) played well and Baker (9 points, four assists, two steals) gave New York (13-13) a lift.
“We needed some fresh energy and the bench was there, especially Doug and Ron. They came in from the bench and gave us a lot,” Kristaps Porzingis said.
Kyle O’Quinn sends a nice dish inside the paint to Doug McDermott who finishes at the rim for two.
Without the bench play and 30 points from Porzingis, the Knicks might have walked off of their home floor in bad shape. After all, a loss on Sunday would have been demoralizing.
New York had dropped a road game to the 5-20 Chicago Bulls the night prior. They’d also let a 17-point lead slip away in a loss to Atlanta earlier in the season. So another loss to Atlanta — and two straight losses to two of the worst teams in the NBA — wouldn’t have gone over well.
But the Knicks’ bench made sure that scenario never came to fruition, outscoring Atlanta’s reserves 45-31.
“They stepped up tonight,” Hornacek said.
So did the head coach.
With several players battling for minutes — including Ntilikina, Michael Beasley, Lance Thomas, Damyean Dotson — Hornacek’s decision-making is the first thing that can be questioned after most losses.
But he deserves credit for how things unfolded on Sunday night.
Between the Baker move and the lineup decisions in the fourth quarter, Hornacek’s finger prints were all over the victory.
“Strong performance,” one Eastern Conference scout said of Hornacek after watching the game.
In some ways, this Knicks season is a year-long audition for Hornacek.
The man who hired him, Phil Jackson, is no longer here. Jackson’s replacement, Steve Mills, and general manager Scott Perry have to find a coach for the long-term future of the franchise.
Both men say that they want to see progress and consistent effort over the course of the season. And they’ve credited Hornacek for, by and large, getting both out of the Knicks so far.
New York is a surprising 13-13 after the win on Sunday night. They rank 15th in defensive efficiency, up from 25th last season. But their season has included a mix of surprising wins and inexcusable losses. Has it been enough lead the Knicks to commit to Hornacek long-term?
It’s way too early to know the answer to that question. But if he has more nights like Sunday’s, Hornacek will certainly get strong consideration.