Thomas scored 20 points to lead five New York starters in double figures, pacing the Knicks to a 91-82 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats.
The Knicks, who earlier this month lost in Charlotte despite 41 points from Crawford, played without their injured shooting guard this time. Crawford was placed on injured reserve with turf toe of his right foot, so Allan Houston started, and Stephon Marbury, Moochie Norris and Trevor Ariza all took on some minutes at the position.
“I feel as though each and every day I’ve got a mismatch,” the 6-foot-10 Thomas said. “I knew tonight it was going to be key for me to try to take advantage of that, try to get them to double and get Al free shots and get Steph free shots. It makes everybody’s job a whole lot easier.”
Houston scored 16 in his first start of the season after coming off the bench since returning from a left knee injury that caused him to the first five weeks of the season. He also missed last year’s playoffs and 13 of the final 14 regular-season games because of soreness that developed after he returned from knee surgery.
“Yeah, it felt more normal, because that’s what I’ve been doing for so long,” Houston said. “It definitely felt more familiar. But, it’s a different situation, it’s a different stage of being here in New York. All I want to do is use my experience to help us.”
“We were a little sluggish. It was weird,” Marbury said. “We were kind of funky—I know I was funky. I couldn’t get into a nice flow. I had some turnovers where I if I would have shot I wouldn’t have got those turnovers. But I stayed aggressive.”
Emeka Okafor had 23 points and 15 rebounds for the Bobcats for his 15th straight double-double, the most in a row by a rookie since Shaquille O’Neal had 15 straight for Orlando during the 1992-93 season.
“We got hung up in the moment where the game got personal, and the game should never get personal on the court,” said Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who earned a technical foul in the third quarter. “We allowed baskets on the other end because we were into ourselves.”
Primoz Brezec scored 13 of his 16 points in the first quarter for the Bobcats, who faded after leading 28-24 and looked set to crumble in the third period, finishing the quarter with almost as many turnovers (five) as baskets (six).
But in the fourth, Steve Smith hit a pair of 3-pointers to cut the Knicks’ 15-point lead to 79-77 with five minutes left. Kurt Thomas then missed an open jumper, but the rebound came right back to the unguarded forward, and the Knicks played the clock down to 3:43 for a finger roll by Thomas. His 3-pointer with 25.1 seconds left secured the win.
“I try to look for Tim a little bit more, too,” said Houston, who had five assists, “because he’s 6-10 and if he feels like you have confidence in him, it gets him going, too.”
With Crawford and Penny Hardaway unavailable, the Knicks struggled early with their guard matchups.
When Houston, still cautious with his left knee and playing fewer minutes than Crawford does, had to sit, Marbury defended the Bobcats’ shooting guard, often 6-foot-5 Keith Bogans, and backup Moochie Norris defended Charlotte’s point guard, Brevin Knight. The switch caused several early turnovers, and Marbury shot 1-for-8 in the first half.
Ariza looked comfortable at the position, though, and had a nice pass to start a fast break and several defensive stops that might make the rookie forward a capable backup at the position. New York coach Lenny Wilkens even opted for Ariza instead down the stretch, subbing him in on defense and switching Houston in for offense in the final minutes.
“I feel comfortable anywhere on the floor,” said Ariza, who was impressive during the preseason but has been quiet of late. “I practiced a lot at that position during the preseason.”
Jamison Brewer replaced Crawford on the Knicks’ roster. … Charlotte was looking for its first road winning streak after winning its first game away from home Wednesday at Houston.