For a night, the people who filled Madison Square Garden could stay a few seconds after the final buzzer and savor what they’d seen. That’s always one of the great moments at the Garden after Knicks games, after Rangers games: those few stolen moments when the game is won, when your throat is sore, when the ride home can wait.
The Garden’s most faithful basketball commuters have had too few of those moments this year.
So they would enjoy this one. The Bulls had sliced all but one skinny point off a late lead, and so often for the Knicks this year, at least at home, that means surrender. Not this time. Not this game. Alec Burks hit a huge shot. Julius Randle made a couple of free throws. The Knicks, who hadn’t won four games in a row all season, would win their fourth game in a row, 109-104.
“Just make winning plays,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, and on the 26th anniversary of the Michael Jordan double-nickel game it would be the Knicks who would figure out a way to hand the Bulls an 11th loss in their last 15 games. The Bulls are on their way to the playoffs and the Knicks will hit their expiration date soon.
For a night it was hard to tell which was which.
For one night at Madison Square Garden, it was easy to suspend your disbelief and think about what the Knicks can be. There was RJ Barrett, continuing to demand the ball, continuing to develop a fearlessness that will only grow as he does, scoring 28 points, helping the Knicks expand their lead in the third quarter.
“That guy,” Mitch Robinson said with a wide smile, “is balling!”
There was Obi Toppin, who was terrific in 20 minutes off the bench, scoring 17 points and bringing the kind of raw athleticism that has been too often absent from Knicks teams of recent vintage. Thibodeau even extended Toppin’s fourth-quarter minutes, keeping him in the game in place of bringing back Randle until only a few minutes remained.
These, as much as anything, are what Knicks fans want to see now. At this point it really isn’t about punishing Randle (who looked like he was still hurt most of the night, though he did have 13 rebounds) or simply handing the car keys over to the kids.
They want to know that the kids can play. Barrett has been a revelation in March — and he is now officially averaging 20 points a game. Toppin’s case has been more interesting, because he’s so often been buried behind Randle and because Thibodeau has been slow to fully integrate him into his circle of trust.
So to beat a playoff-caliber team, and to do it with the assistance of two young cornerstones — to say nothing of a fine eight-point, four-assist night from Immanuel Quickley — makes for a good, full night for the 19,812 who filled every seat.
“You can’t replicate the pace of the game in practice,” Thibodeau said. “Why would you not use the game for your players to develop?”
There are a lot of Knicks fans who have been asking the same question the past few weeks as the Knicks’ season became less and less about the present and more and more about the future. And it is a sensitive subject for Thibodeau, who remains locked in on simply figuring a way to win as many games as he can, leaving the big picture for later.
“Playing all these young guys, getting valuable experience, you’re not eliminated until you’re eliminated,” he said. “I don’t want a quitting spirit on our team. I don’t believe in that other stuff.”
The other stuff, the stuff that sacrifices winning in the name of something else, that will never be part of Thibodeau’s credo, for better or worse. For now, the Knicks will take the trade-off. The kids are playing well, and the Knicks are playing as well as they have all season. Does that bode well for the future?
If you’re a Knicks fan, there’s really only one way to root.