Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau, known for his rigidity, had to change something.
The Knicks’ starters had been listless in the first half of Game 2 of their first-round N.B.A. playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday. The starting five had combined to hit only four field goals in the first two quarters. Thibodeau had benched his point guard, but the Knicks still trailed by 13 points at halftime. Madison Square Garden, packed with fans again, was restless.
So Thibodeau pulled out a surprise, something he is typically hesitant to do. He opened the second half with two lineup changes, sending out Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, both of whom had kept the Knicks in the game to that point.
The move changed everything: The Knicks went from 13 points behind to holding a 1-point lead entering the fourth quarter. The crowd was revived. So was the team, which pulled away to beat the Hawks, 101-92.
The victory was the Knicks’ first playoff win since 2013, and tied the series at 1-1. Game 3 of the best-of-seven series is Friday night in Atlanta.
“We just felt like we were flat and needed a jolt of energy,” Thibodeau said after the game. “We wanted to change it up and we got going. It started with the defense, then we started sharing the ball.”
What was notable about Thibodeau’s turning to Rose and Gibson was that they are the two players with whom Thibodeau has the most experience, making Wednesday’s midgame switch less an adjustment than a revival. Rose, 32, and Gibson, 35, have played for Thibodeau on three different teams he has coached: the Chicago Bulls, the Minnesota Timberwolves and now, the Knicks.
Rose and Gibson were key parts of Thibodeau’s most successful team: the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls, who went to the Eastern Conference finals. Each player has a different, lesser role on Thibodeau’s current team, but his trust in them has never faltered.
The five players he sent out for the second half on Wednesday night — RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Rose, Gibson and Reggie Bullock — were not a makeshift group; they were, in fact, the Knicks’ fifth-most-used lineup during the regular season, according to the N.B.A.’s tracking numbers. They were extremely successful in 109 total minutes, with a net rating of 14.4 (a measure of how much a team is outscoring the other team or being outscored).
“Regardless of who was out there, I think us, as a team, we came out with a different intensity level and focus and we were able to make them uncomfortable,” Randle said.
Randle finished with 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting, adding 12 rebounds and four assists. But in the first half, the Hawks once again flummoxed him with double teams, a repeat of Game 1, and he could not hit his jumpers. Randle’s teammates did not make shots off his passes, either, allowing Atlanta to make its double teams even more aggressive. In the game-changing third quarter, with Rose on the floor as another playmaker, Randle had more room to operate: He scored 11 points, including two 3-pointers, which helped turn the tide.
Rose finished with 26 points in 39 minutes, while Gibson had 6 points and 7 rebounds in 30 minutes. But it was Gibson’s defense in the paint that helped limit the effectiveness of the Hawks star Trae Young, who had hit the game-winning shot in Game 1 and hushed the Garden crowd.
That is not to say Young didn’t give the Knicks fits again. He finished with 30 points on 20 shots, often leaving his primary defender, Rose, in the dust. But this time it was Rose, and the Knicks, who got the last word. As the final seconds ticked off, Rose dropped the basketball and aggressively clapped his hands.
“To get that far and play the way that we played, to come back and get the lead, and not only that, but to win, it shows a lot,” Rose said. “It shows fight.”
Inserting Gibson and Rose into the lineup after halftime was not Thibodeau’s only tweak. Elfrid Payton, a starting guard, played only the first five minutes of the game and, after being replaced by Rose, did not return. For months, Payton had been a prime example of Thibodeau’s unwillingness to bend: He has largely been ineffective as a player since March, but he never received less than 12 minutes the entire regular season, and averaged 24 minutes overall. Now, he might be out of the rotation altogether.
Thibodeau also gave his bench, which has been a pleasant surprise, more leeway on the court than he typically does. The Knicks began the fourth quarter with Obi Toppin, Nerlens Noel, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks and Bullock on the floor. And at a crucial juncture in the game, with minimal playmaking on the floor, that group extended the Knicks’ lead to 10.
And Barrett, who averaged 34.9 minutes a game during the regular season, sat out the entire fourth quarter. Instead, Thibodeau’s final adjustment was his closing lineup of Rose, Burks, Bullock, Randle and Gibson, a five the Knicks had not tried all season. It worked, particularly defensively, as they forced the ball out of Young’s hands.
The game was tied with about five minutes left. Atlanta did not score another field goal the rest of the game. Instead, the Hawks looked like the Knicks had in the first half, tentative and unable to make shots. Young was able to get off only one shot in that stretch, to the delight of a Garden crowd that had booed every mistake of their new archenemy.
Now the series will move to Atlanta for Games 3 and 4. The Knicks were 16-20 on the road during the regular season. Thibodeau and his team can take solace in the fact that, despite their best players putting up poor performances, they barely lost Game 1 and rallied to tie the series on Wednesday. Whatever questions they have, the Knicks certainly have the confidence of Thibodeau.
“Look, I love this team,” Thibodeau said, high praise from the typically impassive coach. “There’s a great will and determination to them.”