Knicks center Mitchell Robinson intercepted a pass at the foul line intended for Joel Embiid, sprinted downcourt and slammed it down with ferocity. It completed a 9-0 run midway through the second quarter and put the Knicks up by five points against the 76ers.
The fake Garden crowd went wild. The real crowd? There wasn’t one.
And in the end, when the Sixers had finished their expected butt-kicking of the Knicks, 109-89, maybe that was for the best — a day-after-Christmas blessing.
The errant-shooting Knicks — lowlighted by RJ Barrett’s 2-for-15 clunkfest — proved they can be as wretched without fans as with them. The Robinson steal-and-slam represented their last highlight of the evening.
It was a surreal night at the empty Garden, a home opener far from its normal sell-out of 19,812.
With fake noise pumped into an empty building, the pandemic hit home again as the Knicks’ first official Garden game since March 8 against the Pistons was contested sans the critical New York audience.
The first fan-less Garden game featured the first jersey malfunction. With the Knicks wearing new black city-edition jerseys, Reggie Bullock received a reject. The front of his jersey contained his correct number of “25.” The back read “23” — Robinson’s digits.
Late in the first quarter, Bullock darted to the sidelines to retrieve a corrected, all-25 jersey.
Unfortunately, the Knicks didn’t correct enough of their other mistakes. Embiid owned the night with 27 points and 10 rebounds for Philadelphia. Stephen Curry’s brother, Seth Curry, proved the best shooter on the floor, making 6 of 8 shots for 17 points for the Sixers while the Knicks shot 38.6 percent.
This eerie Saturday night began 3 ½ hours before tip-off. Outside the Garden, there was construction on 33rd Street for the new glass Penn Station entranceway. There wasn’t a Knicks jersey in sight.
Inside, MSG Network’s Mike Breen and Walt Frazier, Knicks beat writers and one Philly scribe were funneled to the adjacent Garden theater for COVID-19 tests. The small media group was permitted to wait in the stands 45 minutes for results to come in.
Once in the main arena, the scene was hard on the eyes. All the seats behind the baseline have been removed. In their place, in each end zone, a promotional Lexus vehicle stands on a platform. The 100-level seats are covered in blue tarp.
There wasn’t a celebrity row, but a handful of chairs placed 10 feet behind the sideline, according to NBA rules. Knicks president Leon Rose, senior VP William Wesley, general manager Scott Perry and assistant GM Allan Houston occupied the seats.
Spike Lee wasn’t in attendance. Owner James Dolan wasn’t in his customary seat behind the baseline adjacent to the Knicks bench, but instead in a vacant area in the 100-level on the opposite side of the benches. The upper levels were a sea of vacant blue seats.
“Strange,’’ said Sixers coach Doc Rivers, who played for the Knicks from 1992-94. “It just really is. I played in the era of ‘Go New York,’ and the place was on fire. The city was electric. The Rangers were phenomenal as well, with Mark Messier. And we had Patrick Ewing. And it was just a great environment. And right now, going to the city, very few cars, very few people walking around, walking into the Garden with no sound.’’
According to a source, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, a native of New Britain, Conn., wanted to have a couple of family members on hand for his head-coaching home debut as a Knick. No dice.
“We certainly miss them,’’ Thibodeau said of the fans before tip-off. “We’re going to do the best we can until they can get back in the building.”
Before the contest, Barrett floated the idea a fan-less Garden could work in the Knicks’ favor. Not Saturday, and maybe not Sunday when the powerhouse Bucks arrive.
“Actually having no fans might be an advantage,’’ Barrett said. “I know if I was a competitor, coming into the Garden, with all those fans, I’d want to have a great game. So coming in there with no fans actually probably gives us an advantage that way too.”
Dolan’s absence by the bench will be interesting. The Post has learned Garden brass had talked internally a few years ago about whether Dolan sitting in his baseline seat was a distraction to the players. Dolan’s body language during losses has never been too good. But the concept of moving Dolan’s seat never gained traction.
Perhaps we will see the effect of a Dolan-free zone on another night. The Knicks started well, Julius Randle was red-hot for 18 first-half points. But Barrett, as hot as he was in the opener, was as frigid Saturday and point guard remains an issue. The Sixers ran off a 14-0 run late in the second quarter to gain a 56-47 lead, and they pounded the Knicks in the second half.
The only good news on a night the Knicks fell to 0-2? No boos.
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