It was the sort of night that you might not have been able to dream about for the Knicks. They were riding a nine-game winning streak after decades of ineptitude, and the 2,000 fans allowed into Madison Square Garden on Monday seemed as if they were all celebrities rushing to be a part of the magic.
And then there was Chris Rock seated near Jon Stewart. Q-Tip and LL Cool J at center court. Gerry Cooney waving to the crowd.
None of this seemed likely when the season began with no fans and little hope for the Knicks, and in the opening moments of the game, it seemed as if the fun would never end. The Knicks burst out to an 18-5 lead over the Phoenix Suns, who entered the night with the NBA’s second-best record.
But all good things must come to an end, and on this night, the lead went away and so did the winning streak.
After the Knicks built a 15-point lead in the first quarter, the Suns took over, carried by the firepower of Devin Booker and a huge contribution from a player the Knicks once passed on in the NBA Draft, Mikal Bridges. In the end, Chris Paul delivered the dagger shots and the Knicks finally didn’t have an answer in their 118-110 loss.
Booker led Phoenix (43-18) with 33 points. Bridges added 21 and Paul had 20.
It was a night when Julius Randle couldn’t carry the offense, as he has so many times. Derrick Rose tried to shoulder the load, scoring 22 points. Randle had 18 and RJ Barrett and Reggie Bullock added 17 each, but it just wasn’t enough to hold off a team that seems set on contending for a title.
Atlanta lost in Detroit, so the Knicks (34-28) remain tied with the Hawks for fourth in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks fought, and when they saw the lead get away, they fought some more. Down 111-102, they closed to 113-110 on Randle’s three-pointer with 1:09 left. But Paul, who had been held in check much of the night, hit a falling-backward jumper over Randle as the 24-second clock ticked down and did it again with a three-pointer, putting the game out of reach.
"I mean, circus shots, for sure," Rose said. "I think everybody was surprised with the shots that he hit. I think even he was surprised."
Paul then made his own trip down celebrity row, shaking hands with the fans whose hearts he’d just broken while the Knicks were regrouping in a timeout.
"Just get ready for the next one, come in tomorrow, watch film, make corrections," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "You know the games keep coming.
"We didn’t play as well as we could have in the second half. That being said, our guys have been fighting all year. Second half, I think it was 113-110. We’ve got to get a stop. I thought we had pretty good defense on Chris and he made a tough shot. So tip your hat. We’ve got to get going again.
"I felt like we were going to have to play for 48 minutes. You can’t have the type of record that they have without being a high-quality team. You’re not going to beat them just playing well for 12 minutes. That doesn’t get it done. It’s going to be a street fight. You’ve got to compete."