This is how basketball in New York is supposed to be.
Come late spring, the Knicks are supposed to be in the playoffs. Tickets at Madison Square Garden are supposed to be obscenely expensive. Movie stars are supposed to be begging the Knicks to sit in courtside seats, not the other way around.
For 14 straight years, from 1988 to 2001, the Knicks were a fixture in the postseason. Fans expected this. There was no sad talk of lottery positioning. No non-stop searching for a free-agent savior.
In 2001, there was absolutely no notion that a good portion of the next 20 years would be spent in a seemingly endless cycle of rebuilding misery.
On Sunday night, the Knicks hosted their first playoff game in eight years. And they lost it in the most painful fashion when Atlanta’s Trae Young drove around defensive specialist Frank Ntilikina and hit the winning floater over Julius Randle with nine-tenths of a second left for the 107-105 win.
Afterward, Young looked at the crowd and put his finger to his mouth in a mocking "Shhh." And that indeed may have been the only quiet moment at Madison Square Garden all evening.
As tough as the ending was, for the 15,000 fans at Madison Square Garden, this game was about more than just basketball. It was a celebration of their city’s latest survival and a sign, win or lose, that better time seem to be on the horizon.
In many ways, this is the perfect team for New York to latch on to, given that the team that took the floor has shown a level of physicality and toughness and grit that is reminiscent of those teams the city loved in the 1990s. It’s the type of team that exemplifies New York City and all it has been through past and present.
"It was great. Everything we expected and a little more," Derrick Rose said of the crowd. "They were into every play."
RJ Barrett wasn’t born when the Knicks last went to the NBA Finals in 1999. In fact, only one person on the team has any real notion of just how great it was to play at the Garden during that 14-year period.
When coach Tom Thibodeau heard an arena of 15,000 fans stand and wildly cheer "Let’s Go Knicks!" as his team came out on the floor, there had to be a moment when a shiver of memory went down his spine.
Thibodeau spent seven years as an assistant under Jeff Van Gundy and Don Chaney in the 1990s and 2000s. And in his pregame news conference Sunday, he took a few moments to reflect on some of his favorite Knicks postseason memories.
"I think there’s obviously a lot of big moments from playoff games. I think for me it goes back to the 1999 season," he said. "We had two incredible shots. We had Allan Houston against Miami. And [Larry Johnson’s] four-point shot [against Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals]. I never heard the building as loud as the Garden was after that shot."
On Sunday night, the Garden was louder than it had been in years — even with the somewhat limited capacity and some fans wearing masks. One of the loudest pregame cheers was for Thibodeau, who brought back the kind of defense to the Knicks that had been the hallmark of their ’90s teams.
Though it was the great shots that Thibodeau recalled, it was defense that was the team’s calling card as their opponents averaged only 85.4 points per game. That team was a No. 8 seed and went all the way to the NBA Finals before losing to the San Antonio Spurs in five games. Like this team, they were playing in a weird shortened season; a lockout had delayed the start of the season, limiting it to 50 games.
No one is expecting this Knicks team to do what those ’90s teams were able to accomplish, not right away. Then again, no one in his or her right mind expected them to make the playoffs as a No. 4 seed this season after going 21-45 last season.
No matter what the Knicks do this postseason, their year already is a success.
They brought playoff basketball back to New York at a time when the city needed it most.