By the end, the walk-ons were playing out the string, and that delighted the fans. The Bulls had taken a few early haymakers from the Knicks, punched back, even took a lead just before the end of the third quarter. And yet it never felt like the Knicks were in trouble.
It felt, in truth, like the 37-19 stomping the Knicks applied in the fourth quarter was inevitable.
When it was over they waved at the crowd, they took a good look around and they walked off the court. They won’t be back here until May 13. A whole lot could change between here and there. A whole season will surely be more readily defined by then.
“Nothing changes,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said when this 113-94 win was in the books, elevating the Knicks to 35-28 on the season with their 10th win in 11 games. “Don’t get lost. For us let’s get out work done tomorrow and get ready for Houston when the ball goes up.”
The Knicks get a breather before taking on the Rockets on Sunday night, the first leg of a five-city, six-game trip the Knicks have been pointing to, directly or indirectly, all season. They are alone in fourth place in the East right now. They have done yeoman’s work these past few weeks. Always, there was this trip.
And then to Los Angeles, a SoCal two-step against the Clippers and the Lakers. You can understand why Thibodeau doesn’t want his team to look too far ahead of themselves when you study that gauntlet. They won’t need to play all six games at once, and they get a nice break playing the Rockets, owners of the league’s worst record, for starters.
Of course, it makes actually beating the Rockets sort of imperative.
“Step by step,” Thibodeau said.
This, of course, is the fun stuff. This is the good stuff. This is what you’ve been missing all these years if you are a Knicks fan. It isn’t just being in the final homestretch of games — nine and counting now — with every one of them having meaning and significance.
It’s everyone else’s games, too.
It’s Monday, after a nine-game winning streak ended at the hands of the Suns, and recognizing that it might not be damaging just because the winning streak was such a welcome and unexpected element to the season, but because the Knicks can’t afford to lose all that often, not in a crowded Eastern Conference, not with the No. 4 seed still in play …
… and yet it turns out to not be nearly as damaging as it could’ve been, because the Hawks were stunned that night by the Pistons, and the Heat was surprised that night by the Bulls, and then, on Tuesday, the Celtics lost a shocking game at home to the Thunder, and the Hornets lost to the Bucks, and the Pacers lost to the Blazers, and …
And. Well. This is what a playoff hunt looks like. This is what a playoff chase feels like. Thibodeau conceded as much. Look, he may not spend any time on game nights checking the out-of-town scores on the Garden video screen. But he knows. He watches. He follows. Especially now.
“Everybody every night is playing for something,” Thibodeau said. “Play-in, playoff, positioning, homecourt throughout. It makes it exciting. And it makes the intensity of these games like the playoffs.”
Wednesday’s game was precisely the kind that gives Thibodeau maximum satisfaction. The Bulls were hobbled, missing their star Zach LaVine, but they were feisty enough to do the Knicks a solid and knock off the Heat a few nights earlier. This could have been a trap game. At 75-74, Bulls, 20 seconds before the end of the third quarter, it even felt like one.
Then came the fourth. Then came the hammer. Then came a blur of Immanuel Quickley and Julius Randle, and some suffocating defense, and the trap doors all shut and the Knicks began to roll, impressively enough that even the walk-ons got some burn.
“I was pleased,” Thibodeau said, “by how we responded.”
Now they get the road. Now they get six games in 10 days away from the Garden, and by the time they come back we’ll know for sure what their narrative really is. Playoff or play-in? Positioning or desperation? There is so much to be defined in the coming two weeks, so much to be discovered.
This is the fun stuff. This is the good stuff. It’s so much different than Knicks fans are used to. It’s so much better.
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