Joakim Noah was back home, and everyone was going to know about it.
Because Saturday night, he wasn’t Joakim Noah, from the University of Florida. He wasn’t Joakim Noah, the guy in the other team’s jersey.
“At center, 6-11, from Hell’s Kitchen,” blared the PA system as the crowd swelled, “No. 13, Joakim Noah!”
Before he’d played a single minute, it was officially official: After a long exile in Chicago, New York’s prodigal son has finally, truly, found his way back to New York. And the Garden? It welcomed him home with open arms.
“I was nervous,” Noah said. “It’s really special. This is my hometown and I remember coming to the game at the Garden as a kid.”
Granted, it would have been a better homecoming if it had been a win: The Celtics took this one, 119-107, in their fourth preseason game. To make matters worse, Kristaps Porzingis left in the second quarter with what the Knicks called a sore left groin. Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said he doesn’t believe it to be serious; he suffered the twinge in the first quarter. “Honestly, I don’t know what happened,” Porzingis said. “It wasn’t one moment that it happened. It just got worse and worse . . . It isn’t something that should stop me from playing.”
The Celtics led almost the entire way until both teams emptied their bench in the fourth, then the Knicks got tantalizingly close behind the efforts of Willy Hernangomez (12 points and 12 rebounds) and Justin Holliday (13 points), and Sasha Vujacic, whose three with 6:45 left got the Knicks to 96-95. Mindaugas Kuzminskas led the team with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
RJ Hunter had 17 points and Avery Bradley 15 to lead Celtics.
Hornacek said before the game would play about 20 minutes, and ended his night in the third quarter, having played 19:24, scored five points with two assists and three rebounds. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get Knicks fans hopeful: Though a bit slow at times, he did seem healthy, and his thunderous dunk in the second quarter got them to within 43-40. (Granted, he missed a dunk with 1:34 left in the second quarter.)
“For my first preseason game, I feel it was OK,” Noah said. “I feel I could have done better overall.”
In all, it’s not a terrible showing, considering it’s been nine months since Noah last played in a professional basketball game. In that time, he’s had shoulder surgery, changed homes, become a father, injured his hamstring, and finally lived out a childhood dream.
“It’s really only the second time since the end of training camp that he’s been back out there,” Hornacek said. “I thought he did fine . . . He gives us good activities. He got some rebounds. When his condition gets better, he’s going to be a little more aggressive defensively.”
He missed the first three preseason games with a hamstring strain, and it was Saturday morning before he officially was cleared to play.
As for his unusual introduction, Noah said it was by design. “Hell yeah, I asked them to do that,” he said.
His house. His rules.