There’s little doubt it’s been a strange NBA season.
The latest testament to that came Sunday night when the Knicks barely survived a game with a rain delay at Madison Square Garden and defeated Toronto, 102-96.
Yes, we did say rain delay. Play was stopped for 14 minutes as water leaked from the roof of the arena onto the court. While the issue was being addressed, some players rode stationary bikes courtside to stay warmed up.
"For a moment, I thought it was baseball," coach Tom Thibodeau said after the Knicks moved back to .500 at 27-27.
After it rained, the Knicks went cold, and the Raptors cut an 18-point third-quarter deficit to two by quarter’s end. "No lead is safe in this league," Thibodeau said. "You see 20-point leads dissipate very quickly. You have to play all 48 minutes and never let your guard down."
After the Knicks fell behind by four points in the fourth quarter, RJ Barrett drained a three-pointer with 34.9 seconds left to give them a 98-94 lead.
Nerlens Noel was called for goaltending on Pascal Siakam and Toronto had a chance to tie the score when Kyle Lowry stole a pass from Alec Burks. Siakam, however, was called for a double dribble with 11.8 seconds left. Julius Randle then made four free throws in the final 9.9 seconds to secure the win.
"Even when we were down, I just felt we were going to win the game," said Randle, who finished with 26 points despite shooting 1-for-8 from three-point range. "It was time we got over the hump and we did."
"I think what I’ve learned over my course of the NBA is that it’s a long game," Barrett said. "Anything can happen. Everybody goes on runs. The game is up and down. All that matters is where you are at the end of the game when the buzzer sounds.
"I definitely thought we were going to win the whole time too. They’re a good team. You have to expect them to make a run."
The Knicks had lost nine straight games to the Raptors and hadn’t beaten Toronto since a 108-100 win on Nov. 22, 2017.
"It was the pure resilience of this team," Noel said. "As long as we show up and play defense, we will always have a chance to win."
Barrett scored 19 points and Elfrid Payton and Derrick Rose had 11 each. Noel had nine points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.
The Raptors (21-33) were led by Gary Trent Jr.’s 23 points. Lowry added 19. Chris Boucher had 17 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots and Siakam added 16 points.
Toronto, just two years away from having won an NBA title, has lost seven of its last 10 games. It’s been a rough season for the Raptors, who have dealt with a number of COVID-related illnesses and had to move their home base to Tampa because of international travel considerations during the pandemic.
It’s not just the Raptors, however, who are looking quite different from recent seasons. The Knicks have exceeded everyone’s expectations and are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13, when they lost to the Indiana Pacers in the second round.
They have a very good shot of finishing in the top 10 in the Eastern Conference, though it likely will be in one of the bottom four spots, meaning they would have to compete in the short play-in tournament. Most Knicks fans would happily take that accomplishment, especially considering that their team was so bad last season that it wasn’t even invited to the COVID bubble in Orlando to finish out the season.