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The tricky part will be culling the good stuff from the first 24 minutes, cultivating the aspects of those first two quarters that had Knicks players floating off the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Knicks fans — even the most jaded, even the most wounded, even the most skeptical — involuntarily hearing this come from their mouths at halftime:
This isn’t the first time an overmatched Knicks team has tried to inject some kind of life and promise into the earliest hours of a season. But this is the first time the Knicks have Tom Thibodeau as their coach. This is why they hired him. This is why he’s here. Pick your pretender from the recent past — David Fizdale, Jeff Hornacek, Derek Fisher, keep going — and they never could quite figure out how to build on small victories and modest strides.
Thibodeau must, because so much of this season is likely to look the way Wednesday night’s lid-lifter in Indianapolis looked, a 121-107 loss to a Pacers team that is better than them both on paper and on the floor. Most NBA teams are right now. That’s the reality of Knicks life right now.
“You either win,” Thibodeau said, “or you learn.”
What happened later shouldn’t lessen the impact of the first two quarters when the Knicks were full of just about everything you want from a basketball team on the come: fast legs, unselfish players, dead-eye shooting. If a 61-point defensive effort isn’t exactly one pulled from the classic Thibodeau Catalog, it was as much a product of a brisk pace as anything else. And the Knicks were keeping up.
Until they weren’t. Until they couldn’t. Until the Pacers caught them, passed them, lapped them, beat them. Going to happen a lot this year. What matters as much as this final score is the next one. The Knicks return to the Garden for real for back-to-back games against the Sixers and Bucks Saturday and Sunday. Same deal: nobody expects a win either night.
Same deal: they need to show something like they did across the first 24 Wednesday night. Maybe a little more. That’s on Thibodeau, to figure a way. The NBA schedule is funny: it comes at you immediately and relentlessly, even at 10 games shorter. Even in a pandemic. We have seen how quickly it can get away the last decade or two. This one can’t.
“Our schedule tells us we have to be ready to be better every day,” Thibodeau said. “We played about 24 minutes of good basketball; to win on the road you have to do a lot better than that.”
Those 24 minutes though …
RJ Barrett, who had to spend a full spring, full summer and full fall stewing over being snubbed from last year’s all-rookie teams, who has had to listen to the laments of fans who now talk about the Zion-Ja two-man draft, looked hellbent on sending his own message, following up a promising exhibition season with 26 points (11 of 15 shooting), eight rebounds, five assists.
Julius Randle was steaming toward a triple-double before hitting foul trouble in the third, but still put up 17 points, eight boards, nine assists. Alec Burks was terrific with 22. And then there was Immanuel Quickley, the rookie, first point guard off the bench, who was providing a splendid spark of fire and energy when he developed a hip pointer late in the second quarter.
That was the first unwitting, unwanted harbinger of what would soon follow. The Knicks still led 77-76 halfway through the third quarter. By period’s end it would be 88-82 the other way. And then it really got tough.
“It was a learning experience,” said rookie Obi Toppin after scoring nine points (all on 3s), adding three rebounds and two blocks in his official debut. “All of us have to get better at what we’re doing on court. We have a lot of games in front of us and a lot to learn.”
This doesn’t have to be another year of drudgery, another season marking time toward next season. We all saw enough those first two quarters to recognize there is something to see here, and for the first time in years that isn’t said in a train-pileup context.
That’s where the coach comes in. That’s where experience comes in. For the first time in so long, the Knicks are run by a coach who knows how to squeeze the last drops of juice from the orange. This is why they got him. This is why they pay him.
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