There were a couple of times, even if you weren’t lucky enough to be inside the building, even if you were watching through a television screen, when this finally felt like an honest-to-goodness, no-kidding Madison Square Garden basketball game, and it was like listening to an old tune you haven’t heard in years. The lyrics all came back to you quick.
There was one sequence, early in the game, when Nerlens Noel finished an alley oop; the crowd roared. There was another, early second quarter, when Obi Toppin stole the ball away from Draymond Green, sprinted to the other end, and cashed in an alley-oop feed from Alec Burks; the crowd thundered, real thunder, real noise, not out of a can.
There were a couple of moments there in the fourth, while the Knicks were trying to make an improbable comeback from 13 down and the Warriors suddenly couldn’t hit water from a boat that the 2,000 folks turned it all the way back to 1994, all the way back to 1973, and crooned an old chestnut:
That was the good stuff. That was the A-side of the night, along with Julius Randle’s pregame preamble to the crowd, the crowd trying to drown him out with chants of “M! V! P!! M! V! P!!” Along with that fourth quarter, when the Knicks did make it all the way back to 97-97, when it looked like they really would tie a bow on this night.
But there was a B-side, too. There was the final score — Golden State 114, Knicks 106, Steph Curry finally dousing the festivities, as he will, with a couple of clutch dead-eye shots late. There was the start of the game and the start of the third quarter, when the Knicks looked like they were playing with ill-fitting sneakers.
“We didn’t always match the intensity of the game,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said.
There may have been some uneven officiating — at least the Knicks thought so, and that led to Randle earning a second technical foul and ejection late in an evening that was supposed to belong to him start to finish, starting with his inclusion to the All-Star Game. Finishing with him walking through the tunnel to the locker room, the first unprintable chants of the year tumbling from the Garden seats.
“Uncalled for,” Randle said of the thumb.
So the 2,000 who made the familiar pilgrimage to the old gym on top of Penn Station left as they have so often the past few years, mumbling and grumbling, wondering where the phenom version of Immanuel Quickley (1-for-5 shooting) was, wondering where the vastly improved version of RJ Barrett (1-for-9, though he did snare 10 rebounds) was. But also: energized by a typical Knicks game from this 2020-21 season, especially when they cranked up the defense late. There’s no denying that they try. Trying is enough some nights.
Just not this night.
At the end, they missed in a second straight attempt to even their record at .500 for the season, on a night when doing so would have felt so appropriate given the setting and given the mood.
“We’ve got to be a 48-minute team,” Thibodeau said. “Sometimes if you lose focus at all against a team like that you’ll find trouble. You have to be ready. The way we started the game proved that.”
So did the way they ended it. And look: this was the unspoken contract Knicks fans signed with this team a few months ago, before any of them could witness it at all. They understand there will be nights like this. They seem at peace with the emotional gauntlet this imperfect team will provide so many nights.
“This was everything you could dream of,” said Randle, whose wife and son were in the house, whose mother delivered a video-board message from her home in Dallas, who had his typical stellar game of 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
“It’s all come to fruition. It was amazing, honestly. Everything I signed up for, all the goals I wrote down when I came to the Knicks, it was all happening. It was an amazing moment for me and my family.”
Thursday, the high-scoring Kings come to the Garden and the Knicks will try to take another swing at climbing back toward .500. Two-thousand fans will be there again, surely seizing every opportunity to strengthen their voice boxes to midseason form. Maybe the Knicks can be a 48-minute team Thursday. That would be a fine way to say thank you.