Trailing 1-0 in their first-round series, the Knicks were down 15 points late in the second quarter Wednesday night in Game 2.
Julius Randle was horrendous again, and Trae Young, Atlanta’s superstar point guard, was soaring in the face of the Garden’s derogatory chants.
But it all changed dramatically in the second half. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau finally shook it up. He started Derrick Rose at point guard and gritty Taj Gibson at center to begin the third quarter, and regular-season Randle showed up.
It all added up to a ferocious Knicks rally and a resounding 101-92 victory over the Hawks before a rocking 15,000-plus fans at the Garden.
“We needed more energy,’’ Gibson said of the change. “And it worked.’’
With starter Elfrid Payton not playing after intermission, Rose scored 26 points. Randle fired in 13 of his 15 points in the second half and Reggie Bullock awakened from the 3-point line to turn the Garden into bedlam.
“I never doubted it, throughout the game,’’ said Randle, who scored two points and didn’t have a field goal in the first half. “There’s going to be frustrations but who we are as a team. We’re never going to doubt whether we can win a game or not. A lot of guys came into the half saying we’ve been in this position before.’’
The Knicks showed immense defensive force, Gibson seemed to wind up with every loose ball and they have evened the best-of-seven series at one game apiece. The series shifts to Atlanta for Friday’s Game 3.
“We just felt we were flat and we needed a jolt of energy,’’ Thibodeau said of his shake-up. “So we wanted to change it up. It started with the defense and we started sharing the ball, spraying it out, got some looks and we made shots. We started out slowly and our bench came in and played pretty good, then we closed the second quarter slowly. And I just wanted to change it up. I thought we had to do something different and that’s why you have a bench. Those guys came in and played great.”
Thibodeau stuck to his guns and kept Payton as the starter. The Knicks fell behind early as Young, who finished with 30 points and seven assists, was feeling his oats and they were getting pummeled by 15 late in the first half.
“Just more intensity, trying to be in them on the defensive end,’’ Bullock said of the second-half surge. “We were trying to make them feel us, just trying to get back to how we’ve been playing all year.’’
Randle finally found his mojo, barreling to the basket for buckets and drilling a 3-pointer on the first possession of the second half after the Knicks trailed by 13 at intermission. It was hardly a Randle domination, but it was enough.
“There’s a great will and determination to him,’’ Thibodeau said. “Julius hit that shot and he kept coming. He’s got a great will and determination. Obviously we were disappointed in the way he played in the first half but he’s a fighter. The first five minutes he came out with energy and we got going.’’
Rose was brilliant, and his longtime Bulls teammate, Gibson, was a battering ram. Rose made 9 of 21 shots — and all six of his free throws. Two playoff warriors keeping the Knicks alive.
“Last game we felt like we weren’t in tune the way we were supposed to,’’ Rose said. “I know personally I felt that way and coming in I wanted to play with intensity and just try to play as hard as I could. I felt like i played sluggish last game. To get the win, everything we went through in the game, fighting, scratching and clawing to get there, playing against a great young team, it shows fight.’’
Especially Gibson, who brought his playoff mettle.
“Taj was a monster in there tonight,’’ Thibodeau said.
“It’s a dogfight, it’s who could swing the longest for the most rounds,’’ said Gibson, who grabbed seven rebounds, added three steals and was a plus-23. “Nobody believed in us and we stayed the course.’’
Bullock, who didn’t have a 3-pointer in Game 1, finally caught fire from deep to hit back-to-back 3-pointers during the third-quarter spurt and one with 3:26 left to stave off a Hawks charge. Bullock finished 4 of 7 from 3-point land.
The Hawks went stone cold in the second half. Ex-Knick Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic were European brickmasters. Gallinari was 2 of 8 from 3 and Bogdanovic finished 2 of 13 from deep.
The Garden’s roof nearly blew off its hinges after Alec Burks fed a long alley-oop pass to Obi Toppin for a dunk and the Knicks went up by 10 points, 88-78 with 8:34 left in the fourth quarter.
Incredibly, Randle, ragged in Game 1, didn’t have a field goal in the first half as Atlanta took a 57-44 halftime lead behind Young’s 20-point explosion.
The derogatory chants aimed at Young were still there, with the same profane one from Game 1. When that didn’t work, the fans chanted, “Trae Young’s balding.’’
Indeed, in the end, the Knicks did the scalping.
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