When the last shot bounced off the rim, the Knicks finally could exchange exhausted hugs, seeming to hold each other up.
After ceremonial opening night events, 48 minutes of regulation and two overtimes, the players may have been barely standing, but Madison Square Garden still was packed with a sellout crowd. Having waited through decades of dysfunction, more losses than they’d like to count and a pandemic that left the arena empty for much of last season, the fans weren't leaving.
The Knicks arrived for the season opener still floating with the success of last season, high expectations and a sense that maybe the glory days aren't that far off from returning. They took a tentative first step Wednesday night by combining the blue-collar spirit of last season’s team with an improved offensive balance — and just enough of the "chaos" they had predicted would come — to earn a 138-134 double-overtime victory over the Celtics.
"I don’t think we escaped," said Julius Randle, who led the Knicks with 35 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. "We took that. We made some mental mistakes, errors; at the end of the day, we found a way to win the game . . . Everybody stepped up and made big plays."
Evan Fournier added 32 points in his Knicks debut, including 23 after halftime. RJ Barrett scored 19, 14 in the third quarter, and Mitchell Robinson had 17 rebounds.
Jaylen Brown had 46 points (20 in the first quarter), nine rebounds and six assists for the Celtics. Jayson Tatum added 20 points and 11 rebounds.
For opening night, NBA history was acknowledged by T-shirts commemorating the 75th anniversary of the league and franchise draped over every seat. The announcement of a second group of 25 players named to the 75th Anniversary Team came early in the day and included Patrick Ewing and Walt Frazier. They joined Willis Reed, who had been part of the first group revealed Tuesday, bringing more history into focus.
The Knicks started the game on an 8-0 run that had the celebration continuing from pregame, but they fell behind by 12 in the second quarter. They went ahead 109-98 with 4:28 remaining in the fourth quarter on Randle's driving dunk and still led by six with less than 30 seconds left, but the Celtics scored 10 points in the final 26.8 seconds and sent the game to overtime on Marcus Smart's three-pointer at the buzzer as 19,500 fans yelled for the Knicks to foul.
Tom Thibodeau said afterward the plan was to foul, but when Tatum slipped in the backcourt, it caused a moment of confusion. Afterward, both Fournier and Kemba Walker took blame for the miscue.
The teams traded three-pointers like heavyweight boxers throwing haymakers in the first overtime, totaling seven threes (three by Fournier) in the first 2:02 of the extra period and then going scoreless the rest of the way.
Fournier sank a three-pointer with 56.1 seconds left in the second overtime to give the Knicks a 136-134 lead and Derrick Rose hit a tough floating bank shot with 22.2 seconds left for a four-point lead.
"It was crazy," Fournier said. "The atmosphere, the fans, the game itself. It was fun to go two OTs, but I wish we had killed that game in the first 48 minutes. Towards the end, you could see that we were both tired."
If the tired hugs on the court indicated what the players felt like, Thibodeau seemed ready for more, answering a question that began "Are you happy with . . . " by interrupting with a smile, "I’m never happy."
Earl Monroe and Bernard King went to center court shortly before game time for a ceremonial opening tip and then Randle stepped up to the microphone and said, "Knicks fans, we here. Welcome to opening night. We promise this season to go out and compete as hard as we can, give our best effort. We know that’s what you guys deserve." He then finished with "New York, stand up," which wasn’t needed on this night.
Randle was just as good as he was a year ago, but the difference this time was the supporting cast, with five players joining him in double figures. The newcomers were a huge help, but so too was the development of Obi Toppin (14 points), who looked like a different player from the lottery pick from last season.
While Thibodeau spearheaded the turnaround for the franchise last season, Randle was key on the court, earning second-team All-NBA honors and the league’s Most Improved Player Award. Now, with the addition of hometown hero Walker and Fournier to take some of the offensive burden off Randle, the Knicks entered the season in a different state of mind.
It wasn’t just the hopes for the team though, but for the entire city. The Garden was filled to capacity after spending much of last season with no fans in the cavernous arena.
"Hopefully we can get back to normal," Thibodeau said before the game. "It’s always great — optimism when the season starts, the freshness of the season. You always look forward to that, the excitement of having our fans back. We feel we have the best fans in the world, the best arena in the world. And we know what the Knicks mean to the city."