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Knicks 125, Rockets 123: “The most exciting win of the season”

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For real!

NBA: Houston Rockets at New York Knicks Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Leon Rose, the emperor’s new clothes, was in attendance for the Knicks’ best win of the season, a 125-123 orgasm over the Houston Rockets. In a letter to Knick fans, the first reason for hope Rose listed was that the “team has young talent.” The young talent got big minutes and big moments Monday night. Mitchell Robinson put up 12 and 13 in only 24 minutes and was a one-man control group exposing Houston’s small-ball as a failing hypothesis. Frank Ntilikina showed as much aggression and passion as we’ve pro’ly seen from him all year. This recap could focus on a half-dozen Knicks doing something remarkable. Let’s zoom in on the youngest Knick standing the tallest. Let’s zoom out to remember that while the spotlight shines brightest, it’s something more diffuse — sunlight — that makes life possible.

The Knicks had 73 points by the half and a 10-point lead, led by 19 from RJ Barrett. But the Rockets wear space and time differently than most; for them, a double-digit comeback is less a symphony than a minute waltz. If Vegas took bets on “How do the first minutes of the second half go?”, you’d have gotten +400 odds on Houston coming out landing haymakers. Same with the last minutes. Instead it was Barrett who’d land the killing blows.

40 seconds into the second half the lead had grown from 10 to 14, because in those 40 seconds Barrett drew a shooting foul, then another, then forced a team turnover on Houston by throwing a ball going out of bounds off Russell Westbrook, then drew a loose ball foul on James Harden. The book of Luke talks of Jesus’ parents finding their 12-year-old son in the temple and that “all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.” No less astonishing was seeing RJ authoring the narrative rather than being just another character.

Every good story is a swirl of main plots and subplots. Enjoy tonight’s supporting cast in perfect harmony.

The Knicks were employing the rare but effective “Make Daniel House beat you” defense, which was either related as cause or effect to Harden missing all his three-point attempts for the first 34 minutes. House had 20 midway through the third, but the Rockets couldn’t make any headway. But there can be no release without tension and tension’s foreplay is warning signs. The Knicks kept missing free throws. They started turning it over a lot, often due to unforced errors. The Rockets, especially Harden, started getting the touch from deep, and when he hit a 3 at the end of the third the gap was the same 10 it had been at the half, but the vibe had changed. The energy was tilting downward. You ever kiss someone you know likes you? That first moment of tongue? That Harden 3 was this game getting some tongue. Everything after was one long pull building up to the pluck.

Westbrook opened the fourth dribbling past Kevin Knox for an and-one opp. He’d miss the free throw but the game was now a single-digit affair for good. A Knox turnover led to a Jeff Green breakaway dunk. Ben McLemore hit a corner 3 to make it a four-point game. A Robert Covington trey made it 103-101 Knicks. Wayne Ellington, who may have played his best game all season, busted out a crossover that put the lead back at five. The Rockets swinging the ball around ended in an Eric Gordon three; the gap was back at two. Ellington’s hot shooting drew enough attention to him in the corner to find Bobby Portis open for three. Swish. Knicks up five.

The pluck almost came when Ntilikina nearly Harden’d Harden after some tight dribble action with a stepback 3, but this world isn’t ready for something that right. It may never be. After a loooong rest, Barrett checked back in for the last minutes of the game, just in time for a criminally open Harden to hit from deep and make it a one-possession game.

The pluck almost came after Mitch switched onto Westbrook in the corner by the Knick bench. Westbrook drove to the paint and looked to be taking a fadeaway, but instead he dished to P.J. Tucker underneath, who’d cut in from the opposite corner. Julius Freaking Randle recovered from behind for the brilliant right-hand rejection. I don’t think Randle’s made a more athletic-looking play all season.

With two minutes left, Randle missed a runner, but three offensive rebounds by Mitch and Moe Harkless ended up salvaging a point from the possession. keeping New York in front 121-115. Randle kept shooting fadeaways over Harden, and after one such inexplicable miss Westbrook Westbrook’d.

In the book of Mark, it is written that John the Baptist prophesied the arrival of Jesus, saying: “There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with spin moves in the post: but he shall baptize you with some face-up dribble penetration.” To better prepare the way for Barrett’s miracle, Randle consigned himself to the role of would-be hero with feet of clay. His offensive rebound late led to a trip to the line, but he missed a free throw, which Westbrook promptly took right down the floor for a lay-up. He grabbed another offensive rebound off a Barrett airballed 3, but had his follow blocked by Covington.

Down one with 30 seconds left, Harden went at Harkless but missed the lay-up. It was then that the Knicks let their neophtye take the ball and the game in his hands. The rookie took Tucker one-on-one from 40 feet out. got all the way to the basket and scored. It was impressive, period. It was especially impressive coming on after the airball. A lot of players clam up after a late-and-close whiff. RJ chose his love for the moment over his fear of failure. When we make choices based on love rather than fear, we get the world we want. Barrett did some terraforming last night.

Down three with about seven seconds left, Westbrook drove and was fouled by Ntilikina, I’m guessing on-purpose. He hit both free throws. Then the Knicks inbounded to Randle, who missed the first foul shot but hit the second. On Houston’s last possession, Mitch guarded the inbounds. Frank guarded Westbrook, who missed a pull-up from the top of the key.

The Knicks snapped a nine-game home losing streak against the Rockets and beat them for just the fourth time in their last 28 meetings. The club won their second straight game led by the youngsters. The playoffs are still a long way away, but just because New York’s season ends in April doesn’t make this game any less meaningful. Maybe April 2021 or May 2022 or June 2023 start here and now, in March of 2020. For one night, at least, the future looked bright.

Notes:

  • Barrett tied his career-high with 27 points and added 5 rebounds and 4 assists. How many Knicks the past five years could hit those three figures in a single game? What a delight to see someone that young and that advanced in their craft. RJ is the Alma Deutscher of NYC hoops.
  • Does Barrett’s performance in the two Houston games suggest what he might be able to do later in his career after adding muscle and bossing more and more matchups? He’s a strong dude and he’s athletic; when he has one or both advantages in play the whole game, he’s a major player.
  • One of hockey’s most cliched aphorisms is “He’s/she’s a hockey player.” I have concluded Moe Harkless is a basketball player. I don’t see anything of note in his game. But there’s something beyond all the separate aspects. Something of some value.
  • The Rockets have this incredible mind-meld thing going on where anytime Harden feels any contact, he and his teammates all throw their hands up and bitch, instantly and simultaneously. If they were on that kind of same page defensively, they’d win the title no prob.
  • In the second half as Houston inbounded after a Mitch free throw, Harden elbowed Frank in the chest. On the Knicks’ next possession, Frank went right at Austin Rivers, drove into him, knocking him back a few feet, and neatly hit a pull-up. As he tumbled, Rivers nearly went into Harden’s knees like Bernard Pollard did Tom Brady’s. Imagine older stronger sexier Frank doing that lots?
  • They say Harden has unbelievably strong hands. They will never say the same about Knox. I feel like the majority of his drives end with the ball getting stripped or knocked away.
  • Portis may never be more valuable than in a wild shootout like this game. He’s not the kind of fighter who’d win a last-man-standing battle. Portis is more like Tom Cruise in that brawl at the end of The Outsiders. 15 points on 8-of-10 shooting in 18 minutes for the Knicks’ resident greaser. When things get crazy, it’s good having crazy on your side.
  • If the Knicks beat the Jazz Wednesday, it’ll be their third winning streak of 3+ games in 39 games under Mike Miller. David Fizdale had one such streak in 104 games. Jeff Hornacek had 5 in 164 games. Derek Fisher: 4 in 136. I feel like the more Miller exists here, the more he should be for a while.
  • Clyde praised Elfrid Payton for how quickly he closed out on Westbrook on a corner 3. Why on Earth would anyone ever race out to contest Westbrook there? He’s shooting even worse on corner 3s (23%) than 3s overall (25%)
  • I got rrrrrrrreally into this game late. How into it? My fiancee walked into the living room late in the action to tell me our daughter, in bed for the night and within earshot, apparently, told her “Daddy said ‘Pass the bleeping ball. Pass the forking ball.’ Somebody isn’t passing who should be.” We just introduced her to The Good Place and now her favorite thing is using “forking” as a euphemism for the F-word every other sentence.
  • Games like this one are another reason the NBA needs to re-seed the playoffs and make it 1-16 across the whole league. Especially a best-of-5. We have the technology. Let it be!
  • As a recapper, these Houston games are terrific fun but suck to actually take notes on. I type 105 words per minute, yet every time I finish writing down a note something else just happened. This recap mos def brought to you by my DVR.
  • Giants QB Daniel Jones was in attendance. He looks like American cheese is not just his favorite cheese, but his only cheese.
  • Sooo...
  • 58 years ago today, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the Knicks. That always used to seem like ancient history to me. But today I realized that was 17 years before my birth, and that this is the 17th season I’m watching LeBron James play. Now I seem like ancient history to me.

Quoth Pete Bondurant: “...the most exciting win of the season.” Tell me about it! The Knicks just beat the Bulls and Rockets. My ‘90s spirit sleeps the sleep of the avenged tonight. Next game is Wednesday versus the Jazz. Welcome home, my man Mudiay!