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The players certainly needed this gift that fell out of the sky by way of the Garden’s famous pinwheeled roof. Coaches can cajole and coax all they want. They can point out pleasing spasms of even the most deplorable stretches of game tape. They can preach hard work, promote patience, promise results.
But sometimes the players need to see those results.
Sometimes they need something tangible. Something that resembles a 20-point shellacking of the team that was the best in the East last year, for instance. That is why it is fine to celebrate this 130-110 thumping of the Bucks Sunday night without getting too carried away about it. They needed to know there is a carat on the other side of the haul. They know. For a day, anyway, they know.
“The magic,” Tom Thibodeau said, “is in the work.”
It can be. It should be. But after the Knicks’ first two games, both losses, it was hard to remember that. After the eyesore of a home opener Saturday night, when the 76ers had their way in the second half, it was hard to believe any kind of deliverance would arrive when Milwaukee did.
“You improve incrementally,” Thibodeau said. “As long as we put the work in we’ll get better.”
And there it was: the Knicks took a double-digit lead in the second quarter, built it to 61-45 at the half, never let it bleed even once into single figures in the second half. Elfrid Payton played the game of his life — 27 points, seven assists — and Julius Randle turned in what is starting to become simply a workaday lunch-pail effort for him: 29 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists.
Mostly, they didn’t have to walk away from this looking for lovely parting gifts like a contestant on “Let’s Make a Deal.” No consolation prizes. They played hard, they played together, they took full advantage of the Bucks playing about as badly as a talented team like that can play. It was a perfect basketball storm at the Garden, save for one thing:
It was impossible to not conjure what it would have sounded like, felt like, been like if the Knicks had only been joined by about 19,812 of their closest friends as the lead grew against the Bucks, as they ultimately forced Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer to wave the white flag and send his walk-ons to the scorer’s table with more than five minutes to go in a lost-cause game.
It’s funny: there really haven’t been many games like that in New York since March. Maybe the Giants-Eagles game at MetLife back in November would’ve been. Maybe a few of those Islanders playoff games in the summer, if they could’ve been transferred from Canada to the Coliseum. Maybe if St. John’s could’ve finished off Creighton on the day everything shut down, back on March 12, when the Johnnies led the Blue Jays 38-35 as the teams walked off the court at halftime, then didn’t walk back on again for eight more months.
After all: as much as the players need the occasional burst of positive reinforcement, you do, too. The first half in Indiana on opening night was hopeful. There were moments here and there against the Sixers. Even the most optimistic Knicks fan who refuses to believe in jinxes and poxes and hexes has a hard time not noticing the team’s two intriguing rookies, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley, in civvies the last two games.
So yes: you needed this, too. You needed something tangible. You needed something real. Not a bad time of the year to have an unexpected gift fall right out of the sky.
“It was a great bounce-back,” said RJ Barrett, who was talking about the team but easily could’ve been referencing himself, after putting up 17 point, eight rebounds and four assists after suffering through a nightmarish night against Ben Simmons and Philly. “That’s a tough team and we came out and played well, and a couple of guys had huge games for us, we played great as a unit. It’s a great sign for us.”
The grind continues. Cleveland’s next, first game of the first extended road trip in a time of COVID-19. The Knicks remain who they are. Giannis Antetokounmpo still only comes as a visitor; the season will still probably look far more like it did Saturday than it did Sunday.
But you get a game like Sunday?
Suddenly, that doesn’t seem like such a terrible deal at all.
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