NEW YORK — There are few people in the NBA today who know what it’s like, and what it means, to truly make Madison Square Garden shake.
Tom Thibodeau, however, is one of them.
In 1999, Thibodeau was an assistant on Jeff Van Gundy’s coaching staff with the Knicks when Larry Johnson converted his legendary 4-point play that helped send that year’s eighth seed on its improbable run to the NBA Finals. These days, it is Thibodeau himself who is patrolling the sidelines here. And, when asked ahead of the opening game of New York’s first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks tipped off Sunday night, Thibodeau — not exactly the sentimental type — didn’t take long to single out that moment as his favorite MSG memory.
“I’ve never heard a building as loud,” Thibodeau said, “as the Garden was after that shot.”
It couldn’t have been much quieter than in the moments after Trae Young hit the final ridiculous shot in a game full of them for the Hawks, sinking a floater with .9 seconds to go and handing Atlanta a truly heartstopping 107-105 victory over the New York Knicks — and then telling the 15,000 fans in attendance, including Spike Lee, to be quiet.
But for the 47 minutes and 59 seconds leading up to that moment, Madison Square Garden was home to a game that was a mixture of religious revival and playoff intensity, with remarkable shots and dramatic swings happening in both directions.
It was everything that Knicks fans have spent the past 22 years — since that team went to the Finals — waiting to cheer for again, only to endure one misery after another.
There’s been a handful of playoff appearances — none in the last eight years — and only one playoff series victory in the past two decades. Momentary bursts of excitement, such as Linsanity and the rookie year of Kristaps Porzingis, are heavily outweighed by 16 losing seasons.
And yet, until that final moment of Sunday’s game, it felt like time had stopped after Johnson’s shot fell through the net — only to start again with this plucky upstart team that has stunned the basketball world this season by hosting a first-round series.
This year’s Knicks team is the sort of gritty group that New York has always embraced. It’s been more than a generation since Patrick Ewing patrolled the paint for the Knicks in the 1980s and ’90s, but Thibodeau’s defense-first, lunch-pail mentality has been a perfect fit for a group of scrappy overachievers that has gone from being expected to contend for a top spot in the NBA’s draft lottery to securing homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
It’s the sort of unexpected happiness that hasn’t come often for the fans of Gotham over the past couple of decades. And, when coupled with the season-long inability for more than a couple of thousand fans to be in attendance at MSG up until Sunday’s expansion to 15,000 fans, it led to an atmosphere that felt as much like a religious revival as it did a basketball game.
Even before the game started, though, the building felt like it was bursting at the seams, with those 15,000 people producing an energy and enthusiasm that felt like several times that amount. And, once it began, those feelings only intensified.
As Young — more on him in a minute — got off to a hot start, the crowd liberally chanted “F— Trae Young” — and then exploded when Julius Randle hit a step-back 3-pointer on the following possession.
Later, in the second quarter, as the Knicks made a run to get back into a game the Hawks spent much of the first half in control of, Immanuel Quickley hit a pull-up 3 in transition from 30 feet that sent the building into an absolute frenzy — firing up Quickley to the point where he sprinted back to the other basket and was hopping up and down like he’d transformed into a human pogo stick. So, too, did Spike Lee.
And then R.J. Barrett nearly brought the house down with a ridiculous left-handed slam over Bogdan Bogdanovic midway through the third quarter.
The Hawks, though, weren’t on board with the feel-good story of the Knicks returning to the playoffs with a victory. Atlanta has a young, talented roster, with many players making their playoff debuts Sunday night. And yet, despite their inexperience, the Hawks were more than ready for whatever the Knicks threw their way.
Young, in particular, has been someone rival executives and scouts have wanted to see in the playoffs, to see if his slender frame and penchant for drawing fouls would hold up in the crucible that is the NBA playoffs.
Oh, did it ever. Not only did Young put up a truly scintillating stat line — 32 points, 7 rebounds and 10 assists — but he fully embraced the other thing that’s been missing at MSG since the Knicks’ glory days: a true supervillain for the fans to hate. Plenty of great players have come through the Garden over the past couple of decades, but none since Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan have truly been billed as the enemy.
Well, Young certainly is making a run at that honor after his performance Sunday, both for his play on the court and his moxie off of it.
“When you’re in the zone, and everyone is saying “F— you’ … it got real quiet in the end,” Young told TNT after the game.
“For me, I wanted to hear those ‘F— you’ chants again.”
It’s a pretty safe bet Young will get his wish come Wednesday for Game 2 — and probably long beyond that too. That’s the kind of reputation a player can earn only when he’s ripping the hearts out of fans in their own building in games that truly matter.
Those sorts of games have been few and far between over the last 22 years in New York. Even in a loss, the Knicks — and their fans — reminded the basketball world that when those games happen at Madison Square Garden, it can result in a lot of fun for everyone.
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