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Defense carries Knicks past Magic for rare back-to-back wins

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If there were fans, the Garden faithful would have spent MLK Day chanting “De-fence.”

The defensive momentum from their rout of the Celtics carried over into MLK Day as the Knicks shut out the Magic in a 91-84 squeaker in a noon matinee at the fan-free Garden.

The Knicks couldn’t shoot either – not even free throws — as the day turned into a Garden brick-fest. Neither team reached 40-percent shooting and the Knicks blew all of a 14-point lead before surviving.

“I love winning – high scoring, medium scoring, low scoring,” Tom Thibodeau said. “I love the toughness we showed down the stretch.”

With RJ Barrett’s powerful performance (22 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) and more defensive discipline, the Knicks posted their first back-to-back victories in three years with a Boston-Orlando exacta, though they nearly squandered this one.

The Knicks shook off Julius Randle’s rare off-shooting day (5 of 19) to post a key win before taking off for a four-game West Coast trip. But Randle hit a clutch driving layup with that put the Knicks in front 83-81 with 56 seconds left. And he still managed to notch 21 points and 17 rebounds as he made 8 of 12 from the line.

“I couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean, goodness,” Randle said.

Barrett made the key defensive play when he knocked away an Aaron Gordon pass with 40 seconds left with Reggie Bullock picking up the loose ball. Barrett finished it with a fastbreak layup for a 85-81 lead.

They went 40 back-to-backs without a sweep – a testament to the Knicks’ preparation under Thibodeau. The Knicks’ two-game winning streak advanced their record to 7-8 at the 15-game mark, exceeding preseason expectations.

This wasn’t an offensive gem at all, but the Knicks led for most of the first half as their defense held the Magic to a paltry 13 points in the first quarter.

The injury-depleted Magic (6-8) lost their sixth straight. They are missing Evan Fournier, Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac, among others.

Magic rookie point guard Cole Anthony, a Manhattan product in his first game against the Knicks, made two 3-pointers but shot just 2 of 12.

Meanwhile, the Knicks got much better point guard play. Starter Elfrid Payton, Orlando’s former PG, scored 12 points and had four assists.

Knicks rookie point guard revelation Immanuel Quickley continued to be a jolt of offense as he piled up 11 points in 11 minutes in the first half, hitting his customary array of driving floaters. But he was scoreless in the second half.

Though they traveled back from Boston early Sunday night, they Knicks were on the Garden court at 10 a.m. to hold their morning shootaround.

Orlando was a one-man gang in the opening period led by All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. Otherwise, the rest of the Magic failed to show.

Vucevic was sizzling 4 of 5 while his teammates were 1 of 17 in the first period. The Knicks out-hustled the Magic all half in building a 47-38 lead.

Though no points came out of it, the Knicks managed a five-shot possession in the second quarter, chasing down loose balls and offensive boards.

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