For this one wonderful, remarkable moment, time stood still at Madison Square Garden, inside the big gymnasium five floors up from Penn Station. RJ Barrett had lofted his prayer over Jason Tatum with 1.5 seconds left in a tie game, fallen to the ground, and there were 17,529 sets of eyes transfixed on a rotating ball.
The game can be as simple as this sometimes: ball goes in, bedlam. Ball bounces out, a groan. Overtime. And who knows what happens after that.
Ball went in this time.
Bedlam, this time.
“Every time I shoot the ball I think it’s going in,” Barrett said of his H-O-R-S-E shot that tied a bright, beautiful bow around Knicks 108, Celtics 105. “I didn’t see it go in because I fell. But I could tell from everyone’s reaction it was good.”
In a Knicks season that has tried every ounce of a patient fan base’s fortitude, this was the payoff. This was the best win of the year, because for so long it looked certain to be the worst loss of the year. The Celtics were up 25 and they were toying with the Knicks, and boos rained down from every corner, and they were boos earned on merit. This was going to be a very bad night.
And then it was the very best night.
“Resilience,” Julius Randle said, summing it up nicely, but then he addressed his own decision to flash a thumbs-down to the crowd while the Knicks were making their furious comeback. If it didn’t feel in the moment like an accident that Randle was channeling Javy Baez, Francisco Lindor and Kevin Pillar from the very lowest moment of the 2021 Mets’ summer … well, he wasn’t. He was actually paying homage to them.
Randle’s exact explanation of his gesture toward to the crowd: “Shut the f–k up.”
Less than three months after the Garden faithful serenaded him with “MVP!” chants on opening night against these very same Celtics, it seems Knicks fans and their most important and expensive player may be in need of some couple’s counseling.
“Honestly, no big deal to me,” Evan Fournier said. “He plays hard as hell. This is the business we’re in. He’s the star of this team so he’ll get more criticism. I’m not worried about Julius at all.”
It was Fournier who rescued the night from being a complete fiasco. It was Fournier, the Knicks’ enigmatic shooting guard, who put on the grandest show of all Thursday night, scoring a career-high 41 points, knocking down 10 of his 14 3-pointers, burying jumpers like it was the around-the-world finals at the Garden.
It was Fournier’s bomb from the West Side Highway that gave the Knicks their first lead of the night, 99-98, just over two minutes to go. Tatum, who was every bit as brilliant for Boston, answered with an old-fashioned three-point play and, after the Knicks suffered some foul-line follies, tied matters at 103 with a cold-blooded jumper over Barrett, 1.5 to go.
And then it was Barrett’s turn. He took the inbounds pass from Alec Burks, immediately lofted the ball up, fell, and then heard all of Pennsylvania Plaza collapse around him as the ball hit the backboard and swished in, an instant after the final buzzer sounded.
“So good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, shaking his head.
The next few weeks will determine just how good this really was, how meaningful that moment really was. The Celtics and Knicks entered the game with identical 18-20 records, each with a pile of hassles and concerns as long as the eye can see, both on the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
If the Knicks can parlay this, we may look back and want to circle this game. There are enough winnable games immediately ahead of them on the schedule where they really can begin a serious climb within the East. If they don’t do it now, they may never do it at all.
And if they didn’t do it Thursday night …
But they did do it Thursday night. Fournier saved them. Barrett delivered them. Randle? Look, when the Mets did their thumbs-down act in August, it felt like war had been declared. A week later Mets fans were chanting Baez’s name at Citi Field. You play well, no hard feelings. You win, no hard feelings.
You win the way the Knicks won Thursday night?
A foot in the mouth can become a footnote awfully quick. It’s really that simple.