MILWAUKEE — The Knicks took the depleted Bucks’ best punch, then rose from the mat and knocked out the reigning champions.
Inspired by Derrick Rose’s best game of the season, the Knicks rallied from 21 points down and broke their two-game losing streak with a 113-98 victory over the Bucks at Fiserv Forum.
“It’s big,’’ said Rose, who was brilliant in scoring a season-high 23 points with four assists and eight rebounds. “Especially when you lose two, it was big because it was the next game and the next game was against the champs. This could thrust us forward into the area we want to be in — consistency.’’
The Bucks (4-5) were missing Khris Middleton (COVID-19) and Brook Lopez, while they trotted out a rusty Jrue Holiday, who had played just twice this season. Nevertheless, this was still a potent win as the Knicks moved to 6-3.
“It says a lot about the character of our team,’’ Julius Randle said. “It’s a great win for us.’’
“We needed that one,’’ said RJ Barrett, who scored 20 points, his fifth straight game with 20 or more. “We found our defensive. We kept going, kept pushing. It was really good to see us lock in defensively.”
Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau tinkered with his point-guard rotation, raising the role for Rose and reducing the struggling Kemba Walker’s minutes.
Rose became more confident with the extra workload and shot 10-for-18 while juicing the offense in 31 minutes.
“We stayed resilient,’’ Rose said. “We kept working the game. Everyone on the sidelines kept saying, ‘Chip into the lead.’ ”
And Rose and company did just that, with the former MVP hitting all sorts of shots, but mostly pull-up jumpers.
“They gave me my shot,’’ Rose said. “They gave me a lot of room. It was trusting my shot. It’s the clearest I’ve been. I’m playing with joy. I’m in a great place and I’m on a talented team.’’
Walker, after 40 straight games in double figures, notched his second straight single-digit outing — five points in 15 minutes. Walker sat after playing roughly the first seven minutes of each half — similar to the way Thibodeau used Elfrid Payton late last season.
Thibodeau didn’t want to get into the point guard platoon alteration, frowning for several seconds when asked about Rose shining with the increased minutes.
“Derrick played like Derrick always plays,’’ Thibodeau said. “The numbers say what you are.’’
The Knicks made it their focus to limit Giannis Antetokounmpo and allow freedom at the 3-point line. It eventually worked. Antetokounmpo was held to a relatively quiet 25 points, but was removed with four minutes left in the fourth quarter with the deficit double digits.
The strategy backfired in the first quarter when Bucks backup-turned-starter Grayson Allen lit it up from 3-point range as the Knicks left him free — partially to pack the paint and double-team Antetokounmpo. Allen, the former Duke star, erupted for 14 points in the first quarter, shooting 5-for-6, and 4-for-5 from 3-point range. Allen wound up with 22 points. The Knicks worked harder and held the Bucks to 15 points in the fourth quarter.
“The challenges with a guy like Giannis is you have to load up pretty good for him and they can make some 3s,’’ Thibodeau said. “Still you can’t get discouraged, you’ve got to keep going and make sure you’re protecting the paint and firing out to cover that line. It requires you to do two, three things on the same play.’’
The Knicks also received 26 minutes of grit from backup center Nerlens Noel, who in his second game back from injuries, occasionally fronted Antetokounmpo. Thibodeau called his play “phenomenal.’’
The Knicks got off the mat in the second quarter after being outhustled and outplayed in a horrendous first 12 minutes, when they trailed 38-19. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said his players lost their identity in the second quarter, feeling that’s where they lost the game.
“We found our identity in the second quarter,’’ Barrett countered.
With the Bucks bringing a rusty Holiday off the bench, their starting lineup contained just one starter from the title team: “The Greek Freak.’’ The rest of the starters were Pat Connaughton, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Allen and George Hill.
But it still counts as a huge triumph.
“You don’t want to get down like we did but we did,’’ Thibodeau said. “It’s a long game and we kept fighting and got it down to a manageable number. We made some hustle plays and that sort of galvanized us, gave us energy.’’