Immanuel Quickley dropped face down on the court and made a swimming motion with his arms and legs after nailing his third of five 3-pointers Friday night.
The electrifying rookie point guard helped the Knicks make their way back upstream after three straight losses to end their recent road trip, scoring 25 points in 23 minutes off the bench, including 14 in the fourth quarter, in a 102-81 win over Cleveland at the Garden.
Afterward, coach Tom Thibodeau still wouldn’t commit to cries for the 21-year-old Quickley to take over the starting point guard job from Elfrid Payton, but the 25th overall pick out of Kentucky continues to earn significant minutes to close out games.
“It says a lot. You always want to have trust between a player and a coach,” said Quickley, who had shot just 1-for-11 from the floor in Tuesday’s loss in Utah, one game after notching a career-high 31 in the previous game in Portland. “If a coach trusts you that means you put in the work and you’ve worked hard. I feel like I’ve done that and will continue to do that.
“Continue to earn the coaches’ trust, not only [Thibodeau], but the whole coaching staff and my teammates, I’ll continue to do that.”
The Knicks (9-11) also held All-Star big man Andre Drummond to just four points — albeit with 15 rebounds — in another strong defensive effort, despite nine combined fouls between centers Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel.
Darius Garland had 24 points for the Cavaliers, who scored just 37 in the first half and 55 through three quarters. The 81 points were the second-fewest points allowed by this Knicks this season, behind only the 75 they held the Celtics to on Jan. 17.
“You’re not guarding him individually. … You have to have a team awareness and you’re guarding him with your team,” Thibodeau said. “You also can’t do it at the expense of opening up a lot of other things.”
RJ Barrett contributed 24 points, Austin Rivers added 13 off the bench and Julius Randle finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the Knicks, who will face the Los Angeles Clippers at home on Sunday.
The Knicks missed eight of nine shots and spotted Cleveland a quick 13-3 lead, but Rivers and Quickley combined for a dozen points during a 16-4 run for a two-point lead by the end of the quarter.
Randle didn’t attempt a field goal until there were four minutes left in the second quarter, but his 19-foot jumper, two dunks by Robinson put the Knicks up 38-31. Two drives and a corner three by Barrett extended the Knicks’ lead to 14, and they carried a 47-33 lead into intermission.
Drummond only had four points in the half, but Noel was whistled for three fouls and Robinson had two, prompting the first appearance for veteran big man Taj Gibson — albeit for just one minute — since he signed to return to the Knicks on Jan. 7.
The Knicks closed the third quarter with a 12-1 run, including a baseline dunk for a three-point play by Quickley and a late three by the rookie point guard for a 72-55 lead.
Quickley’s performance continued to go swimmingly in the fourth, when he dropped to the court to celebrate another 3-pointer as the Knicks pulled away. He also converted the Knicks’ first 4-point play of the season with four minutes remaining.
“I was just having fun, that’s all,” Quickley said of his impromptu freestyle celebration. “We were in the cold tub and [Rivers] was like, ‘what was that?’
“I was like, ‘I can’t explain it,’ bro, I don’t know what I was doing to be honest. I think I’ve seen Steph [Curry] do it one time. But other than that it was just in the moment I was having fun.”