Fans finally will return to the Garden in limited numbers beginning Tuesday, two nights after the Knicks barely pulled out an emotional win in their final game in front of an empty arena.
Tom Thibodeau’s team flushed a 21-point second-half lead, but it ultimately gave him the gift of a victory in his first game against the Timberwolves since he was fired by Minnesota in 2019, pulling out a 103-99 win Sunday to open a four-game homestand.
In his final contest before All-Star reserves are named Tuesday, Julius Randle finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds as the Knicks improved to 15-16 entering their game that night against Golden State.
RJ Barrett added 21 and Alec Burks (13) sank four key free throws in the final 21 seconds for the Knicks, who had three days off between games because of Saturday’s postponement against San Antonio after multiple Spurs tested positive for COVID-19.
Karl-Anthony Towns scored a game-high 27 points, Ricky Rubio 18 and rookie Anthony Edwards finished with 12 for the Timberwolves (7-24).
The Knicks led 86-65 late in the third quarter, but Minnesota opened the fourth on a 20-6 run to close within two on a 3-pointer by Towns with barely five minutes remaining.
An inside bucket by Towns put the Timberwolves ahead by one with 2:48 to go, but Randle sank two free throws and Burks added four more from the stripe in the closing seconds.
The Jersey-bred Towns was playing his seventh game after missing four weeks following a positive COVID test in January. His mother, Jacqueline, and six other family members died last year from the virus.
“He’s a terrific player. He’s gone through a lot of adversity, and obviously you care about him as a person first and his family — his dad, sister,” Thibodeau said before the game. “In terms of basketball, when he’s healthy, he’s one of the best players in the league. So it’s been a little unfortunate in terms of his injuries the past couple of years, but he’s a terrific talent.”
The T-Wolves were without former Nets All-Star D’Angelo Russell (knee), but this was the Knicks’ first look at Edwards, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft out of Georgia.
Quickley, the 25th pick out of Kentucky, said before the game that he and Edwards were teammates at a top-prospects camp while they were still in high school. They also faced each other multiple times last year in the SEC.
Edwards entered Sunday second among rookies in scoring at 14.3 points per game, just behind Charlotte point guard LaMelo Ball (14.4), with Quickley third at 12.4 ppg.
Quickley, who is playing just 19.4 minutes per game in a reserve role, led the league’s freshmen in player efficiency rating (PER), a metric that measures a player’s per-minute productivity.
Towns and Rubio scored all of Minnesota’s points in an early 15-15 tie, but the Knicks closed the first quarter on a 15-3 surge — featuring five points by Burks, four by Quickley and a transition dunk by Barrett — for a 12-point cushion.
Minnesota drew within four midway through the second, but eight points by Randle late in the quarter — including a straightaway 3-pointer just before the horn — helped the Knicks carry a 61-50 lead into intermission. All five starters reached double figures in points before the end of the third, as the Knicks led by as many as 21 and built a 87-71 advantage entering the final quarter.