A fan high up in the Garden rafters, far back of the Knicks’ bench, had a relevant question for the home team Sunday evening while everything was falling apart.
“You got an extra hour of sleep,” the man shouted during a break in the inaction. “What the hell are you doing?”
The Knicks were turning back the clock for sure, back to the pre-Tom Thibodeau days when there were always plenty of available excuses for losing at home and for failing to play winning defense. Cleveland’s 126-109 victory was a bizarre result in the Garden 46 ¹/₂ hours after dismantling the defending-champion Bucks on the road and seemingly signaling to the rest of the East that the Knicks mean business, as in serious springtime business.
Instead of honoring their remarkable comeback in Milwaukee on Friday night, and separating themselves from a team (the Cavaliers) that entered the season supposedly among the conference’s unwashed, the Knicks mailed in yet another non-performance in the Garden that was just as discouraging as the triumph over the Bucks was uplifting. They turned Ricky Rubio into Reggie Miller, which is a pretty damn hard thing to do.
This year’s Knicks were advertised as more talented than last year’s Knicks, at least on the offensive end of the floor. Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier were going to add firepower, some razzle and dazzle, and Thibodeau was going to coach up the scorers, make them respectable defenders, and make everyone forget about the lockdown skills of Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton.
But as defenders, Bullock and Payton now look like starting linebackers on the ’85 Bears compared to these Knicks, especially at home. It makes absolutely no sense, but while being led by one of the best defensive coaches of his generation, and while being cheered on by passionate fans who were kept home for most of last year by the pandemic, the Knicks have already lost three games in the Garden to inferior opponents.
Some lame excuses could be attached to all three defeats. The Magic? Well, they were ticked off that Thibodeau kept Julius Randle in there in the Knicks’ blowout victory in Orlando. The Raptors? Well, it was kind of a sleepy Monday night and they have young, athletic legs. The Cavaliers? Well, it was a weird 6 p.m. NFL Sunday start (though it was 7 p.m. on everyone’s body clocks) and the Knicks had just spilled and poured a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the Milwaukee breakthrough, and did we happen to mention it was Marathon Sunday in the big city too?
By the end of this one, the Knicks looked like long-distance runners who’d had enough at the 20-mile mark. Rubio scored 37 on them (and dished for 10 assists) in 31 minutes, and though he’s been a distinguished player in the league for 11 seasons, he’s averaged 11 points per game in his career. Thibodeau never would’ve traded Rubio out of Minnesota four years ago had he played like this a little more often.
But the Knicks were powerless to stop him, raising an alarming question: Why don’t they have the same consistent hunger that they had last year, with or without fans in the building?
“The big thing is, we’re not going to win just because we’re home,” Thibodeau said. “We have to understand we have great fans and it’s a great place to play. But our opponents get up to play here too. We have to have an edge about us. Right now we have to fix some things. That’s what I want our mindset to be.”
After the Toronto loss, RJ Barrett said, “We try to protect the Garden at all costs.” Truth is, the Knicks have managed the impossible and turned the Garden into a neutral floor.
The Cavaliers have won four straight games, and are clearly better than they were expected to be. They made 10 more 3s than the Knicks did, and outrebounded them by 16. They outclassed the home team while Collin Sexton was limited by injury to 13 minutes. Oh, and Evan Mobley has a chance to be a monster player in this league.
Cleveland is just another example of how loaded the East has become, and of how difficult it will be for the Knicks to navigate it. Sunday night, Immanuel Quickley relayed this critical fact about his roster: “We don’t got seven All-Stars.” He added that the Knicks will “have to rely more on our energy and effort” rather than try to summon more from the crowd.
Maybe the Knicks will feel a whole lot better about things by beating the Sixers in Philly on Monday night. But if they cannot reconnect with the Garden, nothing they accomplish on the road will matter in the end.