Imagine, for a moment, that a beloved team hadn’t made the playoffs in eight years. Then imagine its home crowd, already considered among the rowdiest in the NBA, being cooped up for 14 months, waiting for a vaccine to shake a pandemic that once called New York City its epicenter.
This crowd arrived on Sunday, packed to the upper bowl of MSG and ready to explode. They were mostly vaccinated, supposedly somewhere around 90%, and skewed young, unmasked and unreserved.
They would’ve chanted for a ham sandwich if it was delivered in a blue and orange box. Instead, they chanted “MVP” at Julius Randle and expletives at Trae Young. They fulfilled James Dolan’s vision of opening Manhattan back for live entertainment, not in a slow drip, but with 15,000 packed indoors and screaming all over each other.
COVID-19 is still very much a reality, but Sunday felt like the Knicks throwing NYC a post-pandemic party. And Trae Young spoiled it.
The Hawks star had the Knicks running in circles on the final possession, driving to the rim and calmly hitting the game-winner with 0.9 seconds left of Atlanta’s 107-105 victory. Young, who had been the target of taunting fans, then looked at the crowd, put his finger to his mouth and silenced them all. He was like a bartender yelling ‘Last Call,’ deflating the arena.
Not only did Young score 32 points — including six in the final two minutes — he utterly outplayed a nervous Julius Randle, whose playoff debut was a dud. The Knicks All-Star shot just 6-for-24 with 15 points, throwing up an airball with 17 seconds left and failing to get off a potential tying shot at the buzzer.
He was saved from a blowout defeat by strong performances from Alex Burks (27 points) and Derrick Rose (17). But none of them could hold down Young, who fell three rebounds short of a triple-double and gave Atlanta a 1-0 series lead.
Tom Thibodeau, for the first time all season, officially removed his mask, although he had been mostly using it as a chin strap. It was part of a new rule for vaccinated coaches, giving us full view of Thibodeau’s animated protests to the referees.
It would’ve felt like normal, except the Knicks were in a playoff game. For the first time since Jason Kidd, now 48 years old, was their point guard.
Before the game, Thibodeau remarked that the loudest he ever heard MSG was as Jeff Van Gundy’s assistant in 1999, when Larry Johnson hit his famous 4-point play. It’s unlikely Sunday surpassed those decibel levels, or even those during Linsanity in 2012, but RJ Barrett’s soaring dunk over Bogdan Bogdanovic in the third quarter must’ve been close.
Given the dramatic uptick in crowd noise and pressure, there were questions how the nerves and adrenaline would translate to performance. It wasn’t a good look in the first quarter, when the Knicks missed 19 of 26 shots, managed just one assist and fell into a double-digit hole.
Elfrid Payton continued to bomb as the starting point guard and Thibodeau was even quicker to sub him out for Rose. Payton logged just eight minutes total and missed his three shots.
But the younger Knicks with the second unit settled the score and rose to the occasion. Rookies Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin helped cut the deficit to 2 at the break. It set up a nail-biting finish that ruined the party.