Isaiah Hartenstein heard the word from his coach so many times it stuck in his brain on the final possession.
It’s hands up on a contest, arms raised vertical, preventing the shot without fouling. And on Tuesday night, Hartenstein did Tom Thibodeau proud.
“Thibs screams it all the time, ‘Verticality. Verticality,’” Hartenstein said. “So that was going through my head, just being vertical. No matter what he does, try to dunk it. Be vertical. If he tries to do what he did, tries to get a foul. My main thing was being vertical.”
Hartenstein’s defense stopped Donovan Mitchell’s drive in the final seconds of the Knicks’ 105-103 victory, providing the backup center a highlight to counter much of his struggles this season. It was especially noteworthy because the opponent was Mitchell, the All-Star who the Knicks tried and failed to acquire in the offseason via trade.
Mitchell’s presence was a reminder to fans of what the Knicks missed. And he was shoving it in their faces while leading a fourth-quarter comeback at MSG.
But the hero wasn’t Mitchell. It was Hartenstein and Julius Randle.
“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 great,” Randle said.
Behind Randle’s 36-point, 13-rebound effort and Hartenstein’s block, the Knicks averted the fourth-quarter collapse and snapped a four-game losing streak.
Mitchell finished with 24 points in 38 minutes on 9 of 24 shooting but limped off the court after appearing to suffer a leg cramp in the final seconds.
The dramatic ending occurred because the Knicks squandered an 11-point advantage in the fourth quarter. Then with a chance to put the game away, RJ Barrett air-balled a wide-open trey with 15 seconds left.
That set up Cleveland’s final possession with a two-point deficit. Mitchell drove into the paint and was met at the rim by Hartenstein. Sensing that Hartenstein was too big to dunk over, Mitchell double-pumped in midair while searching for a foul.
Hartenstein’s verticality worked. It was the best moment of Hartenstein’s brief Knicks career, and a small level of redemption after he struggled for much of this campaign.
“It’s kind of what I came here for,” said Hartenstein, who signed as a free agent in the summer. “I know myself I’m not playing as good as I’m supposed to be playing. I’m kind of letting the fans down, the city down a little bit. But I’m just going to keep getting better because I know I can do it. So keep getting better and keep representing for New York.”
After the attempt around Hartenstein bounced weakly off the front of the rim, Mitchell grabbed his own rebound and threw it out to Evan Mobley, who missed a turnaround at the buzzer.
“If you put a tally in the win column, you’re always thinking you’re improving,” Jalen Brunson said. “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’s clicking, and the ball is going in the hoop, but to win games when things aren’t going your way, this is a good stepping stone for us.”
Immanuel Quickley returned to the rotation after missing Sunday’s loss in Toronto with a sore knee. He logged 27 minutes with nine points..
Evan Fournier, meanwhile, was unavailable for personal reasons – the birth of his son. He wouldn’t have played anyway with Quickley healthy.
The Cavs (29-20) are enjoying a strong season but have been poor on the road with a 9-15 record. The Knicks struggled at home. So something had to give. And it was the Cavaliers, who’ve lost twice this season at MSG.
‘NOVA HONORING BRUNSON
Jalen Brunson will have his jersey retired by Villanova during its game Feb. 8 against DePaul.
Brunson won two national titles in three years with the Wildcats, earning National Player of the Year in 2018.
“Jalen put together one of the most amazing Villanova Basketball careers ever,” Villanova coach Kyle Neptune said in a statement. “His remarkable will and work ethic left an indelible mark on our program. He set a standard of excellence, on and off the court, that still impacts us today. We can’t wait to celebrate Jalen’s legendary Villanova career with the Nova Nation.”
The Knicks play the SIxers in Philadelphia – about a 30-minute drive from Villanova — two days after the ceremony.
NEW ALL-STAR FORMAT
The NBA announced the All-Star draft will take place right before tipoff. Like a true pickup game.
The two team captains – which will likely be LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo based on the last count of fan votes – will pick from the pool of All-Stars.
Last year the captains drafted their team 10 days before the game.
The Knicks have two All-Star hopefuls – Brunson and Randle – but neither are garnering enough votes for a starting spot and will need to be picked by the coaches as a reserve.