The streets outside of Madison Square Garden were unusually quiet. The usual crowds of fans in blue and orange squeezing into bars and restaurants were absent. The only sign that anything was going on inside the Garden was a small line of workers waiting for a COVID test to gain access to what usually would be a hot ticket.
The Knicks held their home opener Saturday night, a 109-89 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Mecca — which seemed like an abandoned warehouse. Blue tarps covered the seats in the lower bowl and a huge Knicks banner provided a backdrop to the scorer’s table and the team benches as the team fell to 0-2.
Walt Frazier was on hand in his usual attire, a blue-and-white checkered suit that would have stood out even if the usual crowd of nearly 20,000 fans had been let in around him as he broadcast the game.
But missing was the electricity the fans could provide. Celebrity row was not even assembled and stars who surround the court were left out. Even Garden chairman James Dolan was pushed from his baseline seat to a few rows up from the court. The hardcore fans in the blue seats watched on televisions at home.
"Strange. It just really is," said 76ers coach Doc Rivers, who played for the Knicks in the early 1990s. "I played in the era of ‘Go New York, Go New York Go,’ and the place was on fire. The city was electric, if you can remember that. 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, it’s just different."
"Actually having no fans might be an advantage," said Knicks second-year wing RJ Barrett (10 points), who missed his first nine shots and finished 2-for-15 from the floor. "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. It’s just you have to go out there and play basketball."
This is the life of NBA players and teams right now. The league has attempted to start up the season with a semblance of normalcy, playing in home arenas rather than confined to a bubble, as it did when it restarted the 2019-20 season. For players and staff, it means daily testing for COVID and the reality that one NBA game already has been postponed in the opening week.
While the league crosses its fingers and hopes to avoid the cancellations and postponements that have plagued the NFL and NCAA football and basketball, the Knicks were happy just to be back playing anywhere. This was the first regular-season game at the Garden since March 8.
"It’s our reality," said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, who had been at the Garden as an assistant when the team was regularly in the playoffs and even made it to the NBA Finals. "It’s unfortunate, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s still a special place to be. It’s the home opener — all those things that go into it. You feel for everyone. The fans are an important part of it. We certainly miss them. We’re going to do the best we can until they can get back in the building."
The Knicks played two preseason games at the Garden and then opened on the road in Indiana on Wednesday. After that disappointing loss, they hoped to get on track at home but faced a daunting task with the 76ers and the Bucks coming in on consecutive nights.
The excitement was tempered by the news that the Knicks’ two first-round picks would both be sitting out. Obi Toppin was bothered by a sore right calf and Immanuel Quickley suffered an injury to his left hip in the opening loss to the Pacers.
Whether the Knicks might have any home-court advantage was a mystery as they prepared for the game.
"I think in any arena with no fans, it might be tough for people to get up and play," Barrett said. "Because we’ve all played with fans our whole lives. So to come in and play in empty arenas, I feel it’s the same everywhere. We’ve got to go in and play basketball. For us, especially for me, having played in the Garden with all the fans and knowing how special it is to be on this side, I still think it’s an advantage for us, because I love playing in the Garden. For everybody else, I don’t know, I can’t speak for them.
"It’s MSG. Best place to play at, in my humble opinion. Just got to protect home court. Got to protect home court. Anybody that comes into New York, we’ve got to defend what’s ours."
"Yeah, it’s Madison Square Garden, so you get Spike Lee and everyone else in the audience," Rivers said. "It’s the one arena left. It’s the only one left from the originals. Kids grow up wanting to play at MSG. And the fact that there’s no fans, I think he may have a point — we’ll see. It’s still the Garden, and for some of those guys, it may be their first time playing there. So we’ll see. He may be on to something, but I hope he’s wrong tonight."
Notes & quotes: Julius Randle shot 11-for-15 from the field and had 25 points for the Knicks, who were outscored 26-14 in the third quarter after trailing by only five at the half. Alec Burks added 22 points in 31 minutes off the bench. Joel Embiid had 27 and Tobias Harris and Seth Curry added 17 each for the 76ers.