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OK. So maybe it isn’t such a terrible idea to keep the Garden empty.
Oh, yes, this is the flip side. It’s been easy to get caught up in what the Knicks have done across the first 10 games of this season. Many nights they have been worth the price of admission: hungry, resilient, fun to watch, easy to root for, delivering unexpected victories, providing unanticipated hope.
Then there comes a night like Sunday night, paired with a night like Friday night, and it’s a cold bucket of water falling off a tall building. The Nuggets came in and rolled the Knicks 114-89 two nights after Oklahoma City beat them, and for all the nights in the early stages of this season when it seemed like such a terrible calamity that fans couldn’t be there to bear witness, this weekend it felt like those same folks had been spared.
As had the Knicks. At least they could suffer in silence.
“We’re not playing well,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, “and we have to fix it.”
The Knicks aren’t playing well, but that’s almost beside the point. Intellectually we knew about the razor-thin margin of error they would carry into every game this year, about how they would have to rely on outworking most of their opponents, because most of those opponents would be more talented and more accomplished.
But on so many nights this first month of the season the Knicks challenged our preconceived notions of what they could be, and what they should be. Julius Randle was flirting with a triple-double every night. RJ Barrett was a precocious wingman. Every night someone new — Austin Rivers, Immanuel Quickley, Elfrid Patron, Alec Burks — would step forward and do something unexpected.
They won five of their first eight. Now, 5-3 doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything. In most cases that’s just a smidge above mediocre. But in a basketball city so starved for positive reinforcement it was genuinely something. They were 5-3, with two home games ahead. People were talking about the Knicks again. People were lamenting not being able to scream themselves silly at the Garden.
Then the Thunder thumped them.
And the Nuggets punished them.
And so what we saw with the Knicks was the first reality check of the season. Randle is still playing terrific, he had 29 points and 10 rebounds … but he was also a ghastly minus-29 for the game. Barrett has improved so many facets of his game but he is still a wildly inconsistent shooter, and when the player taking the second-most shots on your team is an inconsistent shooter you’re going to have some unsightly nights. Payton and Quickley have scuffled. Burks has been absent for two weeks thanks to a balky ankle, which kneecaps the Knicks’ perimeter game.
“You can play well when you don’t shoot well,” Thibodeau said, and that is right, of course. Even when they win the Knicks are never going to be confused for the Splash Brothers. When they win, the Knicks are going to carry lunch pails with them, they’re going to bring time cards and punch in and punch out and play with a simmering intensity.
Some nights, they’ll do all of that and still lose.
But against a team like the Nuggets, the darlings of the Florida bubble last summer and a distinct dark horse to make a run out West this year, they needed to be at their grittiest, at their grimiest, at their most resilient. They were not. And so they were throttled.
And so, we have arrived at this team’s first distinct crossroads of the season. Monday they play the second half of a back-to-back in Charlotte. Wednesday comes the first interborough challenge of the year against the Nets. We have seen this all before. We have seen how quickly seasons can get away.
“The games keep coming,” Thibodeau said. “We have to be ready for Charlotte.”
The Knicks have been nothing if not impossible to pin down, so maybe they look like an entirely different team at Spectrum Center on Monday. Maybe the opportunity to make a statement against Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — presuming both are in the lineup Wednesday — will shake them back to the feisty, snarling team we’ve seen for much of these first dozen games.
Maybe we’ll lament again the absence of fans Wednesday. Because after a game like Sunday, it seems just as well that there was nobody inside the Garden to boo anyone, to fire anyone or to urge anyone to sell the team. For a night, anyway, 19,812 empty seats felt like a blessing.
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