This is the fight the superstar-less Knicks need to show

PHILADELPHIA — Even though mediocre teams are never supposed to win on the road against superior opponents, the Knicks had absolutely no choice but to win Friday. They were not exactly facing the Julius Erving-Moses Malone 76ers. 

In fact, they weren’t even facing the Joel Embiid-James Harden 76ers. With Philadelphia’s two franchise players out, and with the deep, rough-and-tumble Eastern Conference offering no free passes, the Knicks needed to prove to themselves — and to everyone else — that they could at least sink a five-foot uphill putt after it had been practically conceded. 

They did not hit that putt dead center. No, it did a 360 spin around the cup before falling at last, leaving the visitors at Wells Fargo Center looking more relieved than joyful at the final horn Friday night. 

No surprise there. As a rule, nothing will come easily to this middling group. These are the Knicks after all, and after seven games the best thing that could be said about them is that they aren’t the Nets, and that maybe it isn’t such a horrible thing in the end that they failed to sign Kyrie Irving (with Kevin Durant) in the summer of 2019. 

(The Knicks offered an apology to their fan base after that failure. Yes, that can be retracted now.) 

But this eighth game, a 106-104 victory over Philly, might’ve done a lot more than get the Knicks back to .500. They were down 12 points early in the fourth quarter, and they didn’t have a clue how to cover Tyrese Maxey, the emerging star who scored 27 points in the first 36 minutes. While watching Immanuel Quickley’s college teammate repeatedly blow by a parade of overmatched defenders, it was hard not to think that the Knicks ended up with the wrong Kentucky guard in the 2020 draft. 

The Knicks dug into a needed identity against the 76ers.
Getty Images

What else is new, right? This was looking like another night to whine in print about the Knicks’ lack of a true superstar, their inability to trade for Donovan Mitchell or Dejounte Murray, and the fact that Mitchell, Murray, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Ja Morant — the four men most responsible for the Knicks’ four early defeats — had combined for 138 points and 39 assists in those games, delivering performances that you won’t be seeing on Tom Thibodeau’s side of the box score. 

Only it didn’t play out like that. Thibodeau’s decision to start Quentin Grimes turned out to be a non-factor as Grimes scored two points and was minus-20 in 15 minutes. The Knicks committed 13 turnovers before 14 minutes of basketball had been played, they squandered a five-point halftime lead with a dreadful third quarter after Mitchell Robinson left the game with a bum knee, but then they overcame it all. 

“We fought,” RJ Barrett said. “It was beautiful to see.” 

Yes, an ugly game can indeed be a beautiful thing. Obi Toppin was making plays all over the floor — and making a persuasive case for the Toppin-Julius Randle pairing that keeps Thibs up at night — while Jalen Brunson was giving some locals in the crowd a reminder of what he did for Villanova, slicing down the lane for a basket, a drawn foul, and a three-point play with 1:05 left that was one of the biggest sequences of the night. 

Asked beforehand what Brunson has brought to his new team, Sixers coach Doc Rivers said: “Leadership. Toughness. Big shot maker. Winner. Other than that … [laughter]. No, really, I think all those things are what he’s good at. I don’t think you look at him and see one thing that stands out, other than all the intangibles that make him a really good player.” 

Jalen Brunson dribbles during the Knicks' win over the 76ers.
Jalen Brunson dribbles during the Knicks’ win over the 76ers.
Getty Images

Brunson led the Knicks with 23 points and seven assists against only one turnover. He is not much to look at athletically, but he is too smart and efficient with the ball for that to matter. 

“We were very resilient,” Brunson said. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities in other games. We’ve been up and we’ve been down and we came up short the last couple of those. But we finally did enough to win.” 

That was the best part of the whole thing. Even with the addition of Brunson, the Knicks don’t have a lot of talent. They have a number of good players, but no great ones. If they want any shot of making the real playoffs, and staying out of the play-in tournament, they need to show consistent competitive heart from here until springtime. 

“To me, you need that in everything in life,” said Barrett, who scored 22 points. “You’ve got to compete in everything to just try to do the best. We’ll definitely need that throughout the season.” 

The Knicks don’t have an anchor. They don’t have a face of the franchise, and their hope that Barrett will grow into one is a 50-50 proposition at best. 

They have to do all of the little things to compensate for the dearth of big names capable of doing the big things. 

Thibodeau put it this way: “We’re asking everyone to sacrifice and put the team first. If we do that, we have a chance.” 

The Knicks fought for their chance to win on Friday night. They’d better keep their boxing gloves laced tightly for the next five months.