As Game Two tipped off at Madison Square Garden it seemed as if Tom Thibodeau had conjured up the perfect atmosphere. A mix of the sound of 16,254 fans screaming for a sign of life and a defensive intensity that seemed as if it had been recovered from an old locker, tucked away since the old days of Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy.
The intensity came from a mixture of venom directed at Hawks star guard Trae Young and a stench of desperation from the Knicks after losing the series opener at the Garden Sunday and a fear of dropping a second straight at home.
Young was unfazed by the fervent effort and for a half, controlled the game, scoring at will, feeding open teammates and silencing the crowd. If the passion of the crowd was fading the desperation wasn’t. So with even Julius Randle struggling, Thibodeau reached into the past and installed Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson into the second half starting lineup, searching for a spark for his flailing squad.
With that, Rose will never have to pay for a drink in New York again. In a throwback to the days before knee injuries robbed him of his prime, Rose played the entire third quarter, finished with a team-high 26 points in an exhausting 39 minutes to keep the Knicks alive early and ahead with a 101-92 win over the Hawks to even the series at one game each. The win marked the Knicks first postseason victory since May 16, 2013.
"Last game we felt like we weren’t in tune the way we were supposed to." Rose said. "I know personally I felt that way and coming in I wanted to play with intensity and just try to play as hard as I could and follow my teammates. I felt like I played sluggish last game. To get the win at the end after going through everything we went through in the game, fighting, scratching and clawing to get there, playing against a great young team, to get that far and play the way that we played, to come back and get the lead, to win, it shows fight. People stepped up and made big plays."
Thibodeau has stubbornly stuck to his lineup until this night — and even on this night not until the second half. Finally, he sat Elfrid Payton and inserted Gibson in place of Nerlens Noel. And like that, a switch was flicked, a 13-point halftime deficit wiped out. Just seconds into the half Randle hit a three, his first field goal of the night. And finally, with 1:45 left in the third, he hit a fadeaway jumper to give the Knicks their first lead since the opening minutes and they took a one-point lead into the final quarter.
"We just felt we were flat and we needed a jolt of energy," Thibodeau said. "So we wanted to change it up. It started with the defense and we started sharing the ball, spraying it out, got some looks and we made shots.
"We started out slowly and our bench came in and played pretty good, then we closed the second quarter slowly. And I just wanted to change it up. I thought we had to do something different and that’s why you have a bench. Those guys came in and played great."
Once they got the lead there was no longer any need for any profane chants directed at Young as the crowd was in a frenzy celebrating a return to the sort of play the team had put on display in a surprising regular season run to the fourth-seed. With Rose and Gibson starting it, Randle finally awoke and then the game was turned over at the start of the fourth to the rookies — Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley. Toppin brought the crowd to its feet with a fast break dunk of a long lob from Alec Burks.
Hawks coach Nate McMillan rested Young, leaving him on the bench until a timeout with 8:34 left in the game and the Hawks deficit up to 88-78. When the Hawks quickly cut the lead to five Thibodeau put Rose and Gibson back in the game. Young then hit a floater in the lane to cut the lead to 88-85 and after an offensive foul was called on Toppin, Randle was brought back, too. Young found Clint Capela for a layup and the lead was just one. But a Gibson offensive rebound led to a Reggie Bullock three-pointer.
Capela then tied it with 5:05 left on a lob from Young. But Rose answered with a short jumper in the lane and the Knicks were in front again. Randle then found Bullock for another three and the lead was five with 3:26 to play. A fitting cap came when Randle found Gibson for a dunk with 1:41 to play and a seven-point lead.
The day had begun with the Knicks promising to make life harder for Young after he’d answered the taunts in Game One with the game-winner and then signaled the crowd to be quiet. He got his again, finishing with 30 points, but was outdone by the play of Rose as well as Randle, who scored 13 of his 15 in the second half.
It was a long time ago that Rose was where Young was, a young star in the NBA just setting his course and finding not everyone was cheering for him. For Rose, it was a playoff series in Boston where he heard and saw things that opened his eyes.
"The league got so soft," Rose said after the Knicks morning shootaround. "That’s basketball. He came in, he played a great game. And the crowd is supposed to do that. It’s supposed to be that way. And it’s supposed to amp up and bring the atmosphere to where it is right now.
"That’s what I’m used to. I’ve been in series where drinks were thrown at a parent, people’s moms. You on the court and you see a beer splashed on your mom, that’s the environment I’m used to. Now it’s a little different. That’s all part of the game. When you got both sides fighting and you’ve worked your butt off all year. Summer time when nobody is watching you’re at the gym, working on your game and seeing the results of it. Not only in the regular season but in the playoffs and you want to talk …, talk … But the next game it’s going to be tougher."