Remember this night in Milwaukee, just in case the Knicks go much deeper in the playoffs than your average NBA fan expects. This was not just a night when they blew the doors off the defending champs on their own floor — this was a moment when the Knicks opened themselves up to the possibilities of everything they can be.
Can they win the Eastern Conference? Can they win the whole thing?
Probably not … and … probably not. The Knicks will likely need another year or two to become serious contenders for the first time in forever.
But then again, could the 88-win Atlanta Braves overcome major injuries and emerge from baseball’s worst division to win the World Series?
Oh, and one last question:
Could the Knicks come from 21 points down to the Bucks early in the second quarter to outscore them by 36 the rest of the way?
Sports are wild and crazy, as Mike White reminded us last Sunday in MetLife Stadium.
In that second quarter Friday night, imagine the odds you could have gotten in Vegas that Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau would end up smiling on the visitors’ sideline in the final minutes while Bucks fans staggered out of the building and into the dark night.
The Knicks had lost two straight dispiriting games, and their trademark defense kept calling in sick. Nothing changed early against the Bucks, who sank eight 3s in the first quarter. The Knicks made Grayson Allen look better than he ever did at Duke; he outscored their starting five 14-11 in the opening 12 minutes.
Bing, bong, the Knicks were dead. Or so it seemed. The fans were already feeling down after watching their team fall to seventh in the conference — a dreaded play-in slot — after eight games. They were already worried about how improved the East seemed to be, and the last thing they needed to see was Giannis Antetokounmpo in the role of runaway freight train at the Knicks’ expense.
But soon enough Friday night, the Knicks began landing a few punches of their own, softening up the Bucks. Thibodeau read the game correctly and realized he wasn’t going to have a happy plane ride home if he kept Kemba Walker (and, to a lesser extent, Evan Fournier) on the floor. Derrick Rose came in and he provided the intensity and scoring he provided last year, and delivered a vintage D-Rose performance over 30 minutes with 23 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals.
“I’m playing with Joy,” Rose said after the Knicks’ 113-98 victory. The Knicks needed his joy as much as they needed Julius Randle’s 32 points and 12 boards, as much as they needed Nerlens Noel’s rebounding and defense on The Greek Freak, which Thibodeau called “phenomenal.”
The Knicks held the Bucks to 35 points in the second half, and to 15 in the fourth quarter, and actually built a 22-point lead — an amazing 43-point turnaround. As the whole thing unfolded, MSG showed clips from the Knicks’ famous comeback victory over Milwaukee in the Garden nearly a half century ago, when they scored the final 19 points to win by one. It was fun to listen to Walt Frazier rewind the memories with Kenny Albert.
“One of the most fantastic victories of all time,” legendary announcer Bob Wolff cried that night. “What a ballgame.”
No, this ballgame didn’t feel as monumental as that one. But it is worth noting that those 1972-73 Knicks went on to win the NBA title, the franchise’s second and, so far, last.
“We have to have the belief that we can win different ways and we can overcome deficits,” Thibodeau said. “We have to develop the mental toughness to be able to overcome whatever adversity we’re facing.”
It is true that the Bucks were playing without Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, and that the Knicks wouldn’t have dominated the points-in-the-paint battle (54-28) if Lopez were around. At the same time, injuries are a routine part of the game, and as long as the Bucks have Antetokounmpo healthy and heading downhill, they are a handful.
So this improbable victory, Randle said, “shows a lot about the character of our team.” The Knicks just accomplished something that the Nets never did last year, when they went 0-5 on Milwaukee’s court in the regular season and postseason before getting dusted there in this year’s opener.
Is it the start of something special? For the first time since the NBA began tracking play-by-play in box scores in the 1997-98 season, the Knicks overcame at least a 20-point deficit to win by a double-figure margin. That’s really good stuff in the company of the defending champs.
Now the Knicks have to go back to protecting their Garden homecourt as if it were some ancient treasure. Now they have to become a team that makes this night worthy of being remembered for a long, long time.
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