Twice in the previous 10 days, the Knicks had wasted opportunities to push their record to the .500 mark in unsightly losses to the Magic and the Warriors.
They appeared headed for another blown chance to even their record and move up in the murky Eastern Conference on Saturday night. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s surging squad stormed back from a 16-point deficit in the first half, however, and moved into a tie for fourth place in the playoff standings with a gritty 110-107 win over the Pacers at the Garden.
The Knicks improved to 17-17 and are deadlocked with the Raptors entering Sunday’s visit to conference-worst Detroit (9-24). They notably opened last season 17-42 and finished with 21 wins in 66 games.
“I didn’t know it, but it feels good to be at .500. This is my first time at .500 in a long time,” said Derrick Rose, who was acquired from the Pistons on Feb. 7. “You’ve got to stay even-keeled. We have an important game [Sunday].
“That game is more important than tonight’s game and we have to come out with the same edge, if not even more.”
Rose started in place of injured Elfrid Payton (hamstring) for a second straight game and scored 17 points with 11 assists and five steals for the Knicks, who took the season series (2-1) from Indiana.
Julius Randle also filled up the stat sheet again with 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, including two key free throws in the final minute. He said afterward that he was extra motivated in his matchup with fellow All-Star power forward Domantas Sabonis, who finished with just 15 points.
“It’s everything man, just as a competitor. Sometimes there are just individual matchups that you take — not personal or nothing, like you don’t like the other guy, just personal from a competitive standpoint,” Randle said. “So it was that. It was the [season] series matchup as a team.
“And us feeling like we really needed to win this game with how tight the playoff race is, feeling like we really needed to win this game.”
The Knicks, who during Thursday’s win over the Kings had scored 77 points by halftime and finished with a season-high 140, trailed the Pacers by as many as 16 in the second quarter. But their defense keyed a 24-6 run to close the second quarter, culminated by Rose’s straightaway 3-pointer at the buzzer, for a 54-52 lead at intermission.
“We didn’t start the game well, it was funky, and we had to work our way through it. It’s a long game, but the most important thing was just finding a way to win at the end,” Thibodeau said. “We had a lot of guys step up and make big plays. … We just scratched it out.”
Immanuel Quickley finished with 10 points in 13 minutes — including his second four-point play in as many games early in the fourth quarter.
RJ Barrett connected on his fourth 3-pointer of the night and then converted a traditional three-point play to put the Knicks up 99-98 with 3:32 remaining.
He also clanked two free throws with the Knicks leading by two with 14.6 seconds left, but Rose’s deflected steal and Frank Ntilikina’s two free throws with 2.9 seconds to go sealed the Knicks’ sixth win in eight games.
“I gotta do better. I can’t miss two,” said Barrett, who played a strong game with 24 points. “But like you said, we got a big stop. Frank stepped up big-time and knocked those two down and picked me up. It was great.”
Especially with the teams in fourth place and 10th place in the East still separated by just one game.
“It’s a long season and that’s what we have to understand,” Thibodeau said. “Every game is equally important. One game doesn’t take on more meaning than another. They all count the same. Wherever you end up, that can be the difference between a lot of things.”