Knicks turned a meaningless game into a glimmer of hope

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This is a fact: the Knicks trailed by 18 points at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, snow falling outside Penn Plaza and frost filling the big gym on the fifth floor. They still trailed by 17 points, 83-66, with just over 10 minutes left in the game.

This, too, is a fact: The Cavaliers are a dreadful basketball team, one of only five to win fewer games than the Knicks last year. They were also short-handed: Kevin Love didn’t play. Collin Sexton didn’t play. Kevin Porter Jr. didn’t play.

This, too, is an inconvenient fact: The game doesn’t count. It was an exhibition game. The Knicks roared back and won the game 100-93, turning the piped-in melancholy soundtrack of quarters 1-3 into a holiday-happy one in the fourth, but it still didn’t count.

OK. Get all of that out of the way.

Line up all the qualifiers. Line up all the explanations. Emphasize, as you surely must, that it is a quintessential loser’s lament to place a lot of stock behind exhibition games. Casey Stengel used to celebrate Mayor’s Trophy wins with champagne when he managed the Mets. All of that is right. All of that is fair. All of that is true.

But this is also a fact:

If you are in this Knicks narrative for both the long game and the big picture, you are allowed to savor this one, ever so briefly, ever so modestly. Across the game’s final 10 minutes, 83-66 down became 100-93 up. All the worries that fill Knicks’ fans’ most deep-seeded anxieties — still-spotty defense, terrible shooting, really bad shooting from 3 — were on display.

Mitchell Robinson seemed like he was going to drown in foul trouble. Kevin Knox looked perplexed. Immanuel Quickley, the kid from Kentucky, looked like an unbroken colt. Even RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin were having one-of-those-nights nights.

All true.

Also true: As the Knicks thrilled their teammates, the coaches and the Garden’s janitorial staff with their comeback, all of the things you’ll want to see this year were also on public display. Robinson never did get his sixth foul. Knox played a glorious quarter on both ends of the floor, scoring 14 points. Quickley was fearless, and with every drive and jumper provided testimony to get early rotation time.

Most remarkable of all:

As the Knicks were making that comeback, here were the principal contributors:

Barrett (20 years, 158 days).

Knox (21 years, 127 days).

Quickley (21 years, 182 days).

Robinson (22 years, 259 days).

And Toppin, their big-ticket draft pick (22 years, 287 days).

That is what should make you feel best about what happened on the Garden floor Wednesday night. Look, is it a good thing to not only erase that huge hole but to come all the way back and to finish it off? Sure it is. Young players need positive muscle memory.

Will it matter when the other team is wearing “Brooklyn” or “Boston” or “Miami” or “Toronto” on its jerseys instead of “Cleveland?” No, probably not even a little. Nobody was making any bold, silly declarations after this, least of all coach Tom Thibodeau, who has coached enough good teams to understand how foolish it would be to laud a team for winning a pretend game of any kind.

Still, it beats losing by 30. Even beats losing by a deuce. If someone’s going to keep score, why not win?

“I think you learn from each game,” he said. “Obviously, you’d rather win instead of losing and you take it for what it is, which is a preseason game. It’s an opportunity to evaluate where the team is with the season right around the corner. We really can’t waste one second every day about getting better and getting ready.”

You can identify a fun, surprising night at the Garden without going overboard. The kids were able to imagine what the joint feels like, and sounds like, when the crowd noise is real and not prefabricated. Maybe this experience will help them steal a coming game on a cold night in Charlotte or Chicago.

“We just played hard,” Quickley said. “We kept fighting to keep the faith and the coaches said if we did that we could win the game. And we did that.”

Don’t plan the parade. No need to price playoff tickets. Heck, we may look back from the safe remove of May and identify this as one of the season’s highlights; you hope not, but that’s certainly in play at this point of the process. For a night, for a quarter, you were able to glimpse something real about this team, something intriguing, something hopeful.

It is exactly that: It is something.

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