In the opening minutes Saturday, Mario Hezonja swiped a pass and soared in for a fast- break dunk, just ahead of the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was chasing him down. After Antetokounmpo fell, Hezonja confidently stepped over him and headed to the other end of the floor, raising his arms to get the Madison Square Garden fans out of their seats.
The game would go into overtime with heroics from a number of players. But in that moment, it set a tone that would carry over, that even if the standings and star power told you otherwise, the Knicks were not going to back down.
They didn’t, surviving a 16-point deficit, the efforts of Antetokounmpo (whom Knicks coach David Fizdale called the best player in the league) and the ire of the Milwaukee star for a 136-134 overtime victory.
That early moment, though, might be what is remembered. Afterward, when asked if it bothered him, Antetokounmpo said: “Oh, yeah. I’m going to punch him in his [groin] next time.”
That next time is Christmas Day at Madison Square Garden, an early present for the NBA ratings.
But if Hezonja didn’t have another highlight, the Knicks had no shortage of them. Rookie Kevin Knox had a career-high 26 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. Emmanuel Mudiay hit a three-pointer with 24.1 seconds left to send the game into overtime and then delivered big play after big play in the extra session.
Mitchell Robinson blocked Eric Bledsoe’s drive with seconds remaining, and a jump ball with 2.7 seconds left in OT gave the Bucks another chance. Antetokounmpo outjumped Damyean Dotson and tipped it to Brook Lopez, who was fouled by Robinson with 1.2 seconds remaining. He missed the first free throw and intentionally missed the second, but the Bucks could not get a shot up as time expired.
After tying the score in regulation, the Knicks turned to one of their best defenders, Dotson. The Bucks put the ball in the hands of Antetokounmpo, and after a switch by Noah Vonleh put the 6-6 Dotson on Antetokounmpo, Dotson kept him from penetrating and he settled for a jumper from the foul line that missed badly.
Antetokounmpo had 33 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists. Mudiay had 28 points and six assists. Knox had 19 of his 26 in the second half and Dotson added 21, 18 after halftime.
“I want to get the crowd involved even more,” Hezonja said of the dunk, stepping over Antetokounmpo and imploring the crowd to get up and cheer — although he had not heard Antetokounmpo’s reaction as he spoke. “That was a perfect moment for it. I want them. I’m the type of a guy that always wants the crowd getting involved. Honestly, if you’re afraid, this is not for you. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but if you feel fear, this is not the place for you, New York is not a place for you and this team is not a place for you.’’
The Knicks are 8-16 and this game may fade into memory, but the lesson learned was in that early moment, not backing down from Antetokounmpo or the Bucks. Coming on the heels of a one-sided loss in Philadelphia, it’s a lesson that the young team needs to learn.
“The thing I was most proud of was we got blown out in Philly, they just literally embarrassed us,” Fizdale said. “One thing about our kids, we came back in the gym the next day, they didn’t hang their heads, they didn’t doubt, they didn’t make excuses. They just got back to work and tried to get better.
“There’s nothing in basketball to fear. There’s real-world stuff out there to be afraid of. Obviously, it’s always going to be something that ignites the other team. But in the heat of the moment, he made a hell of a play, the guy was there. I don’t know. But no, that’s not scared. That’s not the feeling that I had. It’s just like, ‘All right, get down the court. Let’s go.’ ”
“One thing about our team is we’re always going to fight,” Mudiay said. “We don’t play the scoreboard. That’s one thing Coach always preaches on, play until the fat lady sings and that’s the buzzer, so that’s how we move. That’s the main thing we’re trying to do.”