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Knicks 124, Lakers 123: “F*** the tank. That was spectacular.”

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SWEEP L.A.! SWEEP L.A.!

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

What happens when one franchise at a historic low point, losers of eight of ten, plays another franchise also at a historic low point, one that’s lost eight straight? Lots! Despite no Dennis Smith Jr., no Noah Vonleh, no Frank Ntilikina and no Amar’e Stoudemire (explanation pending), the Knicks stormed from behind in the last few minutes to eke out a 124-123 win over the Lakers.

Surprises abounded at MSG this afternoon. Mario Hezonja saw his first action in over a month, so naturally he played a season-high 36 minutes, and when the stakes were highest Hez stared LeBron James in the eye and didn’t blink. The Knick starters scored 104 points on just 63 shots. Nine Knicks saw action, and the only one who didn’t hit at least half his shots was Allonzo Trier. But it was the big finish that was the big story today.

After scoring a season-low 83 in San Antonio Friday, New York netted nearly half that in the first quarter.

David Fizdale talked about wanting Kevin Knox to get some real-world experience squaring off against James. The first time he did, the rookie played it pretty chill.

Knox was one of two Knicks with 13 in the first, the other being Damyean Dotson, who’d hit his first six shots.

When the opening frame finished New York had scored 41, a season-high for the first quarter this year. Reader, if I could at that point have bet the under on the Knicks reaching 120 points, 110, or even 100 I would have; I’d have bet my savings and yours. Seen too many trains go off the rails this season. Speaking of: the second quarter was very much nothing like the first.

The Knicks would score just six points over the next six minutes, allowing the Lakers to make it a game. Alex Caruso was Alvin Robertson, thieving every other pass on his way to [checks box score; confirms the unlikely] five steals and three blocks. Meanwhile on the other end of the floor Los Angeles had Caruso guarding Mitchell Robinson and the Knicks were either unable or utterly unwilling to see if Mitch could exploit the mismatch. The Lakers took the lead after a Mudiay turnover led to a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope breakway and-one. A late Mudiay flurry kept the Knicks down just three at the break, but it felt like this one was slip sliding away.

“Is he in the game right now?” the fiancée asked about LeBron three minutes into the third. It was a fair question. When he wasn’t sitting at the end of the bench, apart from his teammates like a new kid in middle school’s first day in the cafeteria, James was performing a microcosm of his season to date: the numbers were there, but they felt empty.

Mudiay continued to score with volume and efficiency, but Los Angeles pulled away by six after a LeBron baseline fadeaway. He sat with a few minutes left in the third. You hoped the Knicks would use that time to rally, but New York’s offense devolved into DeAndre Jordan post-ups, and DeAndre Jordan post-ups are no way to go through life. Then again, sometimes the best you can make of a day is doing whatever it takes to get through that day. In this game that principle took the form of Lance Thomas scoring five points late in the third to pull the Knicks within two.

LeBron was back as the fourth began and so were the Knick turnovers, unfortunately. Trier had one highlight before fouling out.

For a stretch mid-fourth, LeBron clearly decided he was taking all the shots and that was that. Luckily for the Knicks he missed almost all of them. But there were other Lakers doing things. After Kadeem Allen pulled the Knicks within one, Johnathan Williams beat them down the floor for the and-one.

James found KCP for three, yet another Caruso steal led to a breakaway lay-up, and then a LeBron breakaway dunk put L.A. up 10.

A James pull-up made it 122-111 with about three minutes left. I generally think if a team is down no more than twice the number of minutes left, they can still win. If you’re down 16 with eight minutes left, you got a shot. Down 11 with three minutes left? I don’t think so. But lo, Hezonja would hit from deep off one of Jordan’s seven offensive rebounds, and after a Laker free throw Dotson would drill a three, too. LeBron, guarded by Knox, settled for a pull-up three that rimmed out; the Knicks would end up with the ball and after a pair of Jordan free throws they trailed by just one. It gets better.

James missed a long two-pointer, then KCP inexplicably fouled Mudiay after the Congolese had congo’d himself nowhere threatening. Mudiay hit both free throws. The Lakers had time to take a quick shot, but LeBron — properly, I’d say — decided to give the viewing public the best possible drama and held for one shot at the end. Problem is, Hezonja had closed shop early. There were no more shots to be had. Mario blocked James! Check out the look after the fact.

Stepping over Giannis and looking at LeBron like “Who’s this guy?” TEAM HEZ FOR LIFE, YO.

A 13-1 closing run gave the Knicks a feel-good win and a season-sweep of their cross-continental foes. It wasn’t the first time New York bested James in the closing moments of a game.

But this was a different stage, a different energy, a different reality. In 2019, this was as good as it gets.

Notes:

  • Mudiay with 28 and 8 on 11 FGAs and 10 FTAs. Hezonja had 17, taking as many field goals (8) as he did free throws. That is some efficient efficiency.
  • LeBron still did LeBron things.

But it looked different today. It’s weird seeing the potential GOAT in a game with so little at stake, especially when that GOAT hasn’t really played a meaningless game...ever? Early in his career they all mattered because James was unfolding; then for over a decade his teams were Finals contenders. I saw old-ass MJ ball for the Wizards and Kobe playing for nothing for a stretch in his prime, between Shaq’s departure and Pau Gasol’s arrival, so I attach no larger meaning to James’ vibe tonight. It really was just...weird.

  • Like, seeing LeBron alone at the far end of the bench, all by himself, visibly, demonstrably separate from his teammates...that can’t be a thing anybody wants, right? Not Laker management. Not LeBron. Am I making more out of this than it warrants?
  • I’ve seen thousands of NBA players over almost 30 years. LeBron and Michael Jordan are the two best I’ve ever seen. What percentage of these guys’ careers do we even see? I grew up in a market that had access to WGN, so I could watch more of Jordan’s games in the ‘90s than a lot of people. And even with that, and all the nationally-televised games, and the playoffs, I only saw a fraction of his games. With LeBron, it’s pro’ly even less. This is a public service reminder that you don’t have to have an opinion about something just because others claim to.
  • A reporter asked Fizdale after the game why Mitchell Robinson didn’t play more than 15 minutes. Because DeAndre nearly put up a triple-double, Fiz answered.

15, 17 and 7. Nice.

  • The Knicks don’t move much off the ball. One Knick who does: Hezonja. On a team that can pass and create space, he’d score 6-8 points a night off unscripted action. Think Shawn Marion.
  • Trier received a flagrant after elbowing Caruso on a drive. I don’t know if I’ve ever rooted for a Knick to get crushed by a foul, but I’m there now. Trier’s elbowed half the league and shows no signs of slowing down. Dude has some penance coming his way.
  • Caruso looks less like an NBA player than any NBA player I can remember. Can you think of dudes who’ve struck that chord in you? Caruso looks like a Floridian who’s charged with statutory rape but pleas to something lesser, but then gets arrested for something stupid like setting off fireworks on Labor Day and now the rape charge is back in play. To be clear, legally: I’m not saying Caruso sleeps with underage girls. I’m mostly saying he looks like almost anything besides an NBA player.
  • Kyle Kuzma looks like someone I would never get along with. Zach LaVine is the same. I just know as kids we would have had that immediate, unspoken, shared hatred you have with some people for whatever reason.
  • I asked the fiancée if there are any Knicks she doesn’t like, and she surprised me by calling out “Allen and his smiley-ass face...”

I hope she has to get used to Kadeem. He can just play, man. I don’t care what his age is. He can play.

  • Remarking on official #75, Ashley Moyer-Gleich, Clyde Frazier said she seemed to have the respect of the players. Why wouldn’t she? Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were hired 22 years ago as the NBA’s first female officials. Would Clyde point out that a rookie male ref seemed to have the players’ respect? I feel like we’re past the point of thinking a female referee is inherently less respected or respectable than a male ref. Am I off on this one?
  • I grew up in the ‘90s, when black on sports jerseys first became a big thing. It worked for the White Sox. It’ll always work for the Raiders. It doesn’t work for the Lakers. The pyramids don’t need a retractable roof. Niagara Falls doesn’t need a water slide (though I wouldn’t object if they built one). The purple-and-gold doesn’t need black trim.

Quoth Chiniqua:

It really was! Next game is tomorrow night in Toronto. Try to maintain your buzz from this win till then. I figure you’re gonna need it.