MEMPHIS — It was a hot and humid May afternoon in Memphis.
But at night, nothing is hotter than the Knicks.
The Knicks didn’t have their starting center Nerlens Noel, and Alec Burks was making a return from a long COVID-19 absence, but the Knicks’ freight train rolled a season-high 44-point second quarter en route to a 118-104 blowout of the Grizzlies on Monday at FedExForum.
The hero was backup point guard Derrick Rose, who didn’t just display his MVP form of 10 years ago but looked like he was back at the University of Memphis leading the Tigers to the national championship game.
With some fans wearing his old “23’’ blue college jersey, Rose’s jump shot never looked truer and he hit three driving baskets down the stretch to finish off Memphis and finish with a season-high 25 points.
“Memphis always has a special place in my heart,’’ Rose said.
Rose was 11 of 15 from the field — 3 of 5 from 3-point land. He’s 19 of 26 in his last two games.
“It’s super cool,’’ Rose said. “Just to be on a winning team. We’re doing something quite unique here, playing with a sense of urgency. After the first half we’re able to adjust. We’re reading the game.’’
Julius Randle AP“We’re playing unselfish. When you create a double team, it’s an easy offense. And we believe in each other.’’
Julius Randle added 28 points (5 of 8 on 3-pointers) and Burks hit his first four shots before tweaking his ankle with four minutes left, forcing Rose back into the contest.
The game got salty late with Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins and the neutralized young point guard Ja Morant getting ejected for arguing and sending the home crowd into a booing frenzy. That’s what the Knicks are doing to teams.
And 10 years after winning his MVP, Rose still can still play the starring role in wins.
“That’s the great value in him, whether he was the MVP of the league at 22, or 10 years later, he’s the same guy,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s always been a team-first guy and winning’s always at the forefront.”
Savvy, smart and tough, the Knicks have clinched a winning record (37-28) with seven games left by posting their 12th victory in 13 games. The Knicks won this on the second night of a back-to-back after getting to Memphis at 4 a.m. Monday.
“You’ve gotta bring the energy and the commitment to win,’’ Thibodeau said. “So I thought our guys were excellent in terms of preparation. We got in late, early this morning. And just being ready to go at the start of the game.’’
This Knicks craziness started with a fourth-quarter comeback versus the Grizzlies on April 9 and nobody knows when it will end. The Knicks’ six-game Western trip is off to a 2-0 start with Denver, Phoenix, the Clippers and Lakers waiting.
The Knicks’ first winning season since 2012-13 was never envisioned in December — not even by Knicks GM Scott Perry and senior vice president William Wesley, who sat next to the team bench soaking it all in. After the buzzer, Perry and Wesley each congratulated Thibodeau.
The Grizzlies made a strong rally within five points with four minutes left before Rose put out the fire following Burks’ injury.
“We didn’t have a lot left in the tank,’’ Thibodeau said. “I like the mental toughness of the team.’’
After missing their first six shots and falling behind 6-0, the Knicks were a joy to watch the rest of the first half. Ball sharing, shot making and a little fast breaking had them on top of the speedy Grizzlies, 69-58, at halftime.
Morant, Memphis’ young stud point guard, was completely shut down (eight points, 2-for-12). Morant’s low moment came late in the third quarter when he tried to throw the ball off the backboard to himself. Randle grabbed it instead and fired downcourt to RJ Barrett for a lefty fast-break stuff and an 87-75 lead.
The Grizzlies got off to a hot start with burly center Jonan Valanciunas sparking an early lead as the Knicks temporarily missed their starting center Nerlens Noel. But Taj Gibson eventually imposed his will and wound up with three blocks while hauling in a key offensive rebound late. Third-string center Norvel Pelle registered two blocks.
“I’ve been coming up against starters my whole career — there’s nothing new,’’ Gibson said.