Opening night began with all of the accoutrements that Madison Square Garden can provide. A sold-out crowd, celebrities of every stripe crammed into the front row, introductions of the entire roster and Julius Randle taking the microphone at center court to greet the fans and kick off the season.
And for much of the night it seemed as if the Knicks were ready for all parts of the event except the actual playing of the game, falling behind almost immediately by double-digits and seeing their best players struggle to find the range.
But if the Knicks have any claim this season it isn’t a superstar like Jayson Tatum or championship expectations, but a simpler trait — resilience. And through a brutal shooting start, highlight reel performances from Tatum and former Knick Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks clung to a belief when they might have been the only ones in the Garden still believing.
And with a national television audience looking on, the Knicks fought back, turning the nightmarish start into their first lead of the game with 8:56 left in the fourth quarter. But in the end, it was Porzingis, once the brightest hope of the Knicks and now a major offseason acquisition for the Celtics, who took over and lifted Boston to a 108-104 win.
Tatum led all scorers with 34 points and 11 rebounds. But it was Porzingis, who finished with 30 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots — as well as a pair of technical fouls — who scored nine points in the final two and a half minutes, for the Celtics, including a three-point field goal to snap a 101-101 tie with 1:29 remaining.
“Honestly, it’s an awesome feeling to come back now, being a Celtic and play here,” Porzingis said. “Even getting booed and getting all that it’s still cool. I really like that and enjoy that. But most importantly we won the game and I’m very excited about what we have ahead of us and I wish the Knicks and this city and the organization nothing but the best.”
The Knicks fought, but could only blame themselves as Randle struggled through. 5-for-22 shooting night and Jalen Brunson was 6-for-21 — the two combining to shoot 1-for-12 in the first quarter as the Knicks dug a hole for themselves.
“I got to be better,” Brunson said. “Yeah, way better. It comes down to us playing a full 48 minutes. We had a six-point lead with like four minutes left. Yeah, we just didn’t get it done. I missed a big free throw off the technical, lost a little momentum with that.
“So I need to be better, first and foremost. But definitely a winnable game. Had a lot of positives to take from it. But I have to be better.”
Down by 12 in the first quarter, and a five-point deficit at the half expanding to 10 again and nine entering the fourth quarter the Knicks kept finding their way to somehow overcome their shooting woes and stick around. Then a 13-2 run in the third quarter, capped by a Brunson three-pointer, tied the score at 66-66.
The Knicks took their first lead of the game with 8:56 left in the third quarter, the Garden exploding in cheers as Josh Hart buried a three on a feed from newcomer Donte DiVincenzo. But the Celtics still managed to pull ahead at 82-73 entering the fourth quarter.
RJ Barrett, who had been one of the few Knicks to keep them in the game offensively to that point and finished with a team-high 24 points, ran off seven straight points and when Immanuel Quickley (24 points) buried a three, isolating against Derrick White and crossing him over, the Knicks had a 93-91 lead. The advantage stretched to 99-93 on threes by Randle and Quentin Grimes. But then Porzingis came up as big as his 7-3 frame and no one had an answer for the Knicks.
Sometimes these games provide no context to what is to follow. Two years ago, coming off a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference the Knicks opened up with a double-overtime win at Madison Square Garden over the Celtics, sending a celebration into the streets outside the arena, one that began the “bing bong” era in New York. But after starting the season 5-1, the Knicks finished 37-45 and in 11th place in the East, out of the playoff picture.
Still, with a contest against the team that might be the best in the NBA and a three-game road trip, following with two-back-to-back sets and a return to the road in Milwaukee, all by the time the season is just six games old, the Knicks may learn something about themselves very quickly.
So the postgame message to the team was a simple one — this is just beginning.
“I said, whether we lose the game or win the game there’s a long way to go,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said.
“And tomorrow we have to have the right approach coming in. Take a hard look at the film. Make corrections. Eliminate the mental errors we had. We can deal with a missed shot. If you have great ball movement, we missed point-blank shots. That’s part of the game. I thought we were good on the offensive board. We did a lot of good things but we didn’t do enough to win the game. And that’s where we have to be.”