Immanuel Quickley took a deep breath and gathered himself. The Knicks had spent the third quarter of this game at Madison Square Garden looking like they were trying out for the Washington Generals, the Milwaukee Bucks all but whistling “Sweet Georgia Brown” in their ears all the way to a 70-46 lead.
There had been boos then — but not the kind we’ve heard here before. That’s how bad they’d been. The Garden couldn’t even muster the energy to let the Knicks really have it.
People had more energy now. Inexplicably the Knicks were only down three. Quickley had an opportunity, and he fired. The ball sailed clean, which was impossible to predict. It was 89 to 89. It was a 43-19 surge. Most of it was by the second unit. The Garden exhaled. It was bedlam.
And maybe this was the rare game for which the locals would’ve settled for a tie, signed up for a draw. The Knicks had succeeded in their push. They’d electrified a dead building. They had no other options. Pat Connaughton, a Notre Dame Sharpshooter, drilled a few 3s. The Bucks made a few more stops. They won the game 112-100.
“We just couldn’t get over the hump,” Quickley said.
Ambivalence reigned over the Garden.
It was a nice comeback. But the comeback was also camouflage. Tom Thibodeau certainly wasn’t fooled by what he’d seen. Although the second unit tried to win the day, the five starting players were far more capable than the first. Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, the starting backcourt, were 2-for-12. Every starter’s plus-minus was between -15 (Mitchell Robinson) and -28 (R.J. Barrett).
Sometimes, plus/minus is just an empty stat. This is not the case.
Asked how long it takes starters to get acclimated with one another, Thibodeau pulled no punches: “You know what they say — when it’s 10 games you say it takes 20. When it’s 20, you say 30. When it’s 30 you say it’s 40, and before you know it the season’s over. It’s a bunch of bull—t.”
And there’s your back page.
“It sucks, man,” said Derrick Rose, one of the reserves who tried to rescue the night, who scored 22 points and had seven assists in 30 minutes off the bench. “We have to come out with better urgency.”
Neither man seemed remotely impressed by the Knicks’ comeback, and that’s a good thing. They shouldn’t be. The Knicks aren’t broken, not at 7-5 after 12 games, but their engine is sputtering. They’ve lost four straight at the Garden, and that’s a red flag for any team in any league. The Bucks may be the defending champs but they’re missing two-fifths of their starting five. It shouldn’t have been this bad of an eyesore.
“We’ve got to figure it out,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve got to do better. You can’t pick and choose what you’re going to be good at — defense, rebounding, that has to be consistent every night. You have to count on that.”
You can’t guarantee a special year in the season’s first two months, but you can sure make the grind ahead more difficult for yourself. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Knicks took a similar path last year, too, because of the way they cruised home at the end of the regular season.
They were 5-7 after 12 games last year, and were in the middle a five-game losing streak which would turn into a miserable 3-8 stretch. They were still finding their way back then, just as they are now. They were able to find defense and Julius Randle became their North Star. Everything else followed.
Thibodeau also helped them. They have come a long way. He must do it again.
“We’ve got to do better,” he said.
Right now, they all look a lot more comfortable on the road than they do at the Garden — and who saw that coming? — so for now perhaps “better” can begin Friday in Charlotte, against the Hornets, who snapped a five-game losing streak by surprising the Grizzlies in Memphis on Wednesday night.
The Knicks are a unique team. They are blessed with a lot of heart. However, they can be frustrating and plagued by nagging flaws.
That was also on full display Wednesday evening. It’s 12 games. There is enough time. But to paraphrase a wise man: if you aren’t careful 12 becomes 20 pretty quick. Thirty becomes forty. And before you know it …