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Knicks 105, Celtics 75: “Easy like Sunday morning”

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A warm bath, a cold beer and a fat spliff all rolled into one.

NBA: New York Knicks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Before today, Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox were the only active Knicks to have participated in a win over the Boston Celtics. The last time New York bested their archrival was November 21, 2018, a.k.a. The Trey Burke Game. Today was the teams’ first meeting in over a year. The way this one went, the Celtics might not want to see the Knicks again until 2022. This was a rare wire-to-wire whupping.

Both teams came into the game on five-game streaks, the Celtics winning that many in a row and the Knicks very much not. Both were shorthanded, though the absence of Jayson Tatum was a bigger deal for Boston than Alec Burks or Frank Ntilikina were for New York. The home team did get some good news, with Kemba Walker making his season debut. That storyline seemed like it’d be the obvious lede after the East-leading Celtics handled the sliding Knickerbockers. Instead, the Knicks’ 105-75 Boston massacre marked the first time they’ve held an opponent under 80 since 2016. I can’t imagine Tom Thibodeau enjoying anything more on his 63rd birthday. Merry born day, Thibs.

NBA teams are infamous for coming out slow in matinee games and in the opening minutes both teams resembled a tire spinning in mud. The Knicks gained traction first, leading 7-2 two minutes and leading Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens to call timeout. Three minutes later the two teams had combined to score just three more points between them. New York’s scoring improved from “butt ugly” to “forgettably common,” while Boston was stuck looking like someone playing a video game without their controller being plugged in (I realize everything now is wireless and that reference may make no sense to some of you. Substitute “having any power” for “being plugged in” and you’ll be fine).

Mitch opened up impactful on the defensive end and the offensive glass, but took a scary fall that forced him to the bench early.

Jaylen Brown was the C’s only offense for the first quarter, the first half and most of the afternoon. He made three three-pointers in the opening frame, accounting for more than half his team’s points.

Raggedy-ass NBA action is a lot easier to enjoy when your team is the one with the lead and the Knicks kept building theirs. Terrific, intense defense plus Boston missing literally every single shot they took is why the Knicks were able to shoot just 35% in the first but still be up double-digits. If you didn’t see the ‘90s Knicks play, that’s what it was like. The Knicks seemed to catch every break.

There was a lot of griping before tip-off when the Knicks announced Elfrid Payton would be starting, ‘cuz apparently if a rookie who’s played fewer than 200 minutes doesn’t ascend to the starting lineup by that point he never, ever will. Despite the kvetching, Immanuel Quickley did get some run. Boy did he ever.

Both teams were struggling from deep — the Knicks made four of their first 12 three-pointers, the Celtics four of 13. The rest of the game the Knicks shot 42% (eight of 19) from deep, the Celtics just 9% (three of 33), a buffet of futility the 2018 Rockets could empathize with. There were plenty of open threes they missed, but credit goes to the Knick defense, which was hustling, helping and rotating in perfect harmony, a clockwork like watching a lock work. In addition to their brickfest, the C’s had 10 turnovers a third of the way into the game; the Knicks had just two.

When Mitch left the lead as eight. When he returned it was nine. The Celtics had missed their chance to capitalize, and as has been the case often the Knick bench came in and did work. If they were a work crew, Quickley’s floater was the foreman.

Tatum’s good, but this wasn’t a high school team missing their best player, who also happens to be the only kid in the county over 6’3” who can dribble and chew gum at the same time. The absence of their best scorer and the rust Kemba clearly felt aren’t enough to explain the Knicks’ dominance. This was their best-looking effort all season, which means it’s pro’ly the best they’ve had since Jeff Hornacek was coaching. The lead hit double-digits and stayed there.

Robinson picked up his third foul in the last minute of the second quarter and the Celtics, especially Tristan Thompson, made a point of trying to get him his fourth after halftime. Luckily Mitch stayed clean without disappearing, and kept his focus on higher aspirations than mucking it up with TT.

On New York’s next possession, Julius Randle drove and found RJ Barrett in the weakside corner for three. Stevens called another early timeout, this one just 54 seconds into the quarter with the Knicks enjoying a looking glass lead, 53-35. It continued to swell as Boston’s offense continued to suck.

Robinson finally committed his fourth foul about midway through the third, but by then the game was a blowout and Nerlens Noel woke up on the right side of the bed, putting forth one of his best games in a Knick uniform. Even when the blue and orange hit a bit of a scoring lull, the defense never let up, and after the Celtics failed to capitalize Payton converted a three-point play and a midrange pull-up to push the bulge back over 20. Daniel Theis finally hit from downtown to snap a streak of 16 consecutive misses from deep, but it was way too little, way too late. By the end of three the Celtics were shooting 30% from the field and 17% from three. The Knicks were very much not.

The fourth was oddly compelling given that the game remained an incontrovertible ass-kicking. For a while it looked like Jaylen Brown might outscore the rest of his ‘mates combined — he didn’t. With the Knicks up 24, Thibodeau sent Robinson back into the game. Up 29, Randle and Reggie Bullock returned, and one minute later RJ was back. The me who fears more than they love freaked out about karma and injuries, especially with Mitch having taken that bad fall earlier and hobbling for a while after he returned. My better angel took a breath and recognized the four starters were all out there with Quickley, and maybe in this cramped season of limited practice time Thibs was giving himself a chance to see what his eventual starters might look like together. As is often the case, Quickley heightened as the spotlight brightened.

Immanuel means “God is with us.” He was certainly with Quickley: his sweet up-and-under put the Knicks up 34; on the next possession he drove and kicked to Bullock for three. New York went up 37. Their biggest lead of the season before today was 28, set against Milwaukee. They blew that and the Celtics out of the water. The season’s most doubtful result was, for 48 blessed minutes, never in doubt.

Notes:

  • Man, Randle is so good this year. What a pleasure to see. I don’t have any deep analysis or commentary to go with that. As a fan, a citizen and a person, you’re always dreaming of hope and change, in the self and in others. It’s just fun seeing a guy level up like he has.
  • In a matchup of two of this year’s draft’s most pleasant surprises, Quickley finished with 17 points and a career-best eight assists. Payton Pritchard: three points, zero dimes.
  • Late in the game, with the Knicks up 28, Quickley really out there looking like Charles Oakley diving across the floor for a loose ball. Rolled right up into Mike Woodson’s legs. Woody’s OK. So’s the rook.
  • Speaking of rooks, this was Obi Toppin’s best game so far. 12 points and five rebounds. He was aggressive and helpful on both ends. So dunks. Such splash. He and Quickley had a bunch of good moments together.
  • When I first wrote about Frank Ntilikina, I thought he could be a less-athletic version of Andre Iguodala. This season I — and a lot of other people who follow the team — are seeing RJ as the more likely candidate for that role. 19 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and a couple of steals for Barrett, as well as some occasional remarkable defensive effort against Brown. RJ’s strong and smart. If he focuses on defense and all the things he’s good at and becomes just a mediocre shooter, he’ll be a wonderful player.
  • This game featured the NBA’s two leading midrange marksmen: Randle and Brown.
  • Add Noel to the list of players who fake needing juuuust enough time to get off a 60-foot end-of-quarter heave before the clock expires, only to magically release it right after the buzzer so they don’t hurt their shooting percentage. Someone wanna let these dudes’ agents know sites like basketball-reference.com track heaves? It’s not gonna cost you money to put up a handful of Hail Marys. Once in a while it might even get your team three points.
  • Noel did a terrific job today, particularly as a help defender. Did you know he entered the game eighth in the league in blocks per game despite playing only 16 minutes per? Two more today.
  • One Noel trait that drives me nuts is something a friend of mine used to always do when we played: it seems like whenever he has a shot at the offensive rebound, he’d rather tap it out wildly, spike it into the earth — he’ll do anything other than just put two freaking hands on it and control it.
  • Toppin loves to spin on defenders and go baseline. He always looks like he’s going to step out. He usually doesn’t, or at least doesn’t get called for it, but it always looks like it’s about to happen.
  • Dunno if the league gave the officials a directive before the season, but they really have done a good job of letting teams play this year. A lot of stuff they would’ve whistled in the past they’re letting go.
  • Clyde on the Payton/IQ starter debate: “I don’t think it really matters. It matters who ends the game, not who starts the game.” In 1995 Anthony Mason won Sixth Man of the Year; he started 11 games but played 32.4 minutes a game. John Starks was 6MOY two years later, when he started one solitary game but still played more than half of every game. In 2013 J.R. Smith played 80 games, started zero, got 33.5 minutes per and also won 6MOY. Quickley doesn’t need to start in January of 2021 to be the starter the rest of the decade, or to be impactful this season and beyond.
  • Kemba played 20 minutes before leaving for the locker room after taking a bit of a shot in the ribs from Noel.
  • Shout out to Jeff Teague for still being in the league. One of those dudes who seems like he’s been playing since the ‘90s.
  • Tristan Thompson opened the fourth being blocked by Noel and Toppin in tandem, then committing an offensive foul. I know very well what Romans 3:23 says. My parents literally put that verse in a frame and hung it on my bedroom wall as a teenager. Still, whenever I see Thompson in a game, this is what I think of.
  • The Knicks wore white and the Celtics wore black. I know I’m getting older, and out of touch, but I just wanna see the Celtics in green and the Knicks in their road blues.
  • Boston’s Tremont Waters facially kinda looks like Starks. He’s listed as 5’10”, which is pro’ly closer to Starks’ actual height than the 6’5” he was listed was at. It was always a trip back in the day seeing Starks against Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller and how obviously he was not 1-2 inches shorter than those cats. He was more like 6’3”.
  • During the game I texted a bit with Jonah Birch. Who’s that, you say? He’s my co-host on the Jacobin Sports Show, a new podcast. The show is devoted to sports, not dialectical materialism, so don’t fret and think it’s gonna be all academia and leftist purity tests. We spent the whole first episode a few weeks ago talking about early-season NBA trends and some NFL stuff. We’re on Spotify and anchor.fm and will be on Apple soon. This week we’ll be interviewing Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation and host of The Collision with former NBAer Etan Thomas. Follow us at @JacobinSports and give us a listen, and maybe a nice review if you’re feeling rosy-cheeked and aglow afterwards.

Quoth Lionel Richie: “Easy like Sunday morning.” This one really was. I may watch the game again later just to feel alive again. Next game is noon Monday when the Knicks host the Magic. Hopefully Orlando comes out looking as off as the Celtics did. Sleep well, loves.