David Lee may have been unceremoniously pushed out the door when Amar’e Stoudemire came to town in 2010, but 14 years ago he etched his name into franchise lore with a game-winning tap in at the buzzer to beat the Charlotte Bobcats in double overtime.
The miracle at Madison Square Garden came on Dec. 20, 2006, during a meaningless regular season affair against the Bobcats. The victory put the Knicks record at 11-17 — they’d finish the season 33-49, missing the playoffs for the third straight season. Still, Lee’s game-winner will go down in history, because it’s actually quite difficult to score when there’s only 00.1 left on the clock.
In fact, a tip in is the only way a team can legally score with that amount of time left. The NBA used to allow players to catch and shoot the ball with 00.1 left, but changed its rules after Trent Tucker hit a buzzer-beating three to lift the Knicks over Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 15, 1990.
Speaking of MJ, his Airness was actually at the Lee game too, sitting courtside as owner of the Bobcats. Also in attendance were Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and John Starks, who sat together, according to the New York Post recap of the game. Will we ever see those three together and being friendly again?
Going into the game against Charlotte, the Knicks were very short handed and overworked. Only half a week removed from a brawl against the Denver Nuggets, New York was without a host of suspended players, including Nate Robinson and the all-important Jared Jeffries, and were coming off a nail-biting, 97-96 overtime victory against the Utah Jazz two days earlier. For the record, Lee finished that Jazz game with 17 points and 20 rebounds.
The remaining Knicks were tired, with Lee, Stephon Marbury, Channing Frye and Jamal Crawford each having played more than 44 minutes against Utah. Against the Bobcats, across two overtimes, Marbury, Frye and Crawford would each play more than 50 minutes. Lee just missed the 50-minute mark, playing 49 minutes and 4 seconds.
Interestingly enough, Lee didn’t even hit double figures until his last second tip in, which gave him 10 points for the night. It was others who shouldered the offensive load for much of the evening. Frye, playing in his second NBA season, led the pack, scoring 30 points (14-26 from the field, zero threes taken) and adding 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. He was helped by Eddy Curry, who put up 29 points and 9 boards, plus Crawford (25 points, 6 rebounds, 9 assists) and Marbury (10 points, 5 boards, 9 dimes).
Lee finished the game with 10 points (4-8 from the field), 19 rebounds and 3 assists, along with 5 turnovers. It wasn’t his best performance ever, but he did wrangle a ridiculous amount of rebounds and served as the finale for the festivities.
Lee’s celebration, famously subdued, was explained by the power forward after the game, according to the New York Times recap of the game.
“I didn’t want to be one of those guys that celebrates and jumps all over the place and then they say the basket doesn’t count,” Lee said after his game-winning tip, off an inbounds pass from Jamal Crawford with a tenth of a second left.
The play was so miraculous that it inspired followup coverage from the New York Times, which explored how .01 seconds can be an eternity, depending on your perspective.
In the world outside sports, a tenth of a second is enough time for a beam of light to cover nearly 19,000 miles or for a hummingbird to flap its wings 10 times.
Wow. 10 whole flaps.
While the overall story of the 2006-07 Knicks isn’t very magical, the night of Dec. 20, 2006 was like a crossover series between Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings. So much magic that there’s actually too much magic. Let’s dial it back and spread some of that magic across the season next time.
For Lee, the tip in was probably his most notorious moment as a Knick. Once a homegrown talent picked 30th overall in the 2005 NBA draft, he ultimately played five seasons in New York before being shipped off to Golden State as the Knicks turned their attention to already established stars like STAT and Carmelo Anthony.
In 2009-10, Lee’s final season before being signed-and-traded out of town, he averaged 20 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists, making the All-Star team as a replacement for Allen Iverson, who couldn’t play due to injury. That All-Star selection made Lee the first Knicks player to play in the midseason showcase since Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell both made it in 2001. Across 386 total regular season games with the Knicks, Lee averaged 13 points, 10 rebounds and 2 assists per game.
Lee would go on to win a championship in Golden State, and it kind of felt like we were allowed to celebrate that title since he was originally on the Knicks. Lee was the best and most promising Knick for a few years, providing hope when it was in little supply for the franchise. His number certainly shouldn’t be retired, but he does deserve to be remembered as a light that flickered on during a decade of mostly darkness.