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Knicks 138, Celtics 134 (2OT): ‘Last year ain’t looking like a fluke’

An instant classic.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The New York Knicks turned what could have been a humiliating choke job into a stirring victory, rallying in double-overtime to top to Boston Celtics, 138-134.

At the half RJ Barrett was scoreless. Kemba Walker was 1-4 for four points. Mitchell Robinson appeared to be in enough game day shape to start, but was timid and out of synch on the boards. At this point, the Knicks offense had been a complete over-reliance on Second Team All-NBA Julius Randle to bail them out, once again, with 22 points mostly scored in isolation, outside of the crisp ball movement seen in pre-season. The Celtics Jaylen Brown was unstoppable. Fresh off a 10-day quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 (a spooky parallel to how the Celtics started last season ravaged by COVID cases) he apparently spent the time alone meditating. The Zen approach worked, he absolutely cooked the Knicks, causing Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau to call multiple time-outs to quell the beatdown.

Yet, somehow, the Knicks were only down at the half by four. This was due to the Knicks stringent defense, which outlasted the scorching hot start by Brown. At the half Brown was 9-12 from the field and 4-5 from three for 25 first half points. But he went scoreless in the second quarter. Jayson Tatum, behind a rolling Brown, as the second option is a scary concept. In reality, against Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes Tatum was kept for the most part human at nine points, 3-10 in the first half.

In the first quarter, the Knicks did a solid job of limiting anyone not named Brown. This continued throughout the second quarter when Brown went cold, allowing the Knicks back in the game on the back, once again, of Julius Randle. Randle used post-ups, pull-up threes, and most beautifully, a two-man game with Mitchell Robinson to keep the Knicks above water. This culminated in a pick-and-roll play between Randle and Mitch mid-way in the second quarter where Randle passed out of a double team with a pinpoint bullet to Robinson, who caught and dunked the ball in stride.

Having your power forward as your best offensive initiator has it’s Joker-like luxuries. Just ask the Denver Nuggets.

Kemba Walker looked flat-footed and a step slow through two quarters. Dennis Schroeder is known as a solid defender, but not elite. Yet, he kept Walker, the guy he replaced in the Celtics line-up, as merely a decoy. Walker still commanded respect with the ball in his hand, but it won’t take long for that mirage to fade if he doesn’t begin to capitalize on it sooner, rather than later.

Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley weren’t much better when Walker returned to the bench. Rose was off early, missing point blank lay-ups like the one he took at the buzzer of the first quarter when he was down hill and wide open. The harsh sound of the buzzer acting as the soundtrack to his return to the bench. Quickley was even worse. Continuing the forecast of poor play as a trial-by-fire facilitator, Quickley made nobody better when on the court. Including himself. The air was sucked out of the Garden faithful midway through he first quarter when Quickley picked up his dribble above the free-throw line and attempted a floater, which miraculously went in. It was a point of emphasis this season for IQ to pick up his dribble later in his drives, securing a closer attempt at the basket and a higher percentage shot. We have yet to see this course-correction in real time.

Evan Fournier was the only other bright spot of the first half. The Frenchman plays hard as hell. You have to respect anyone who out hustles his own defensive limitations. He’s in the face of every player on defense with active hands and a keen awareness of where the ball is always swinging to. His of-the-dribble offense was a welcome break to the near scoreless stagnation of the rest of the starting five. He finished the half with 11 points and a few nice pull up jumpers and fast break points off off forced turnovers.

There is a silver-lining to over-relying on Randle. First, it cements last season’s major accomplishments as no fluke. The Dallas-bred kid has truly elevated his game to star level production. We should give him his roses while we can. We are lucky to have him. He might be the key to the Knicks staying above .500 this season.

But the Knicks would rally. At the 7:30 mark of the third quarter Walker pulled up for three to cut the lead to four. A few plays later, Knicks forced a turnover which lead to a Barrett fast-break dunk, getting the young Canuck back into the flow of the game. Sometimes all you need is one to get going. It felt like, even though the Knicks were down, they were only a pendulum swing away from things going the the other way. The next play Tatum drove to the rim and was met by Randle who stuffed him and cross-court connected with Toppin who scored for an and-one. Knicks down by two.

Knicks shut down multiple Celtics attempts from the perimeter which lead to a long outlet pass to Toppin who laid out a ferocious dunk, bringing the Garden to its feet. The Knicks officially had the flow back. The pendulum was back in the Orange and Blue. Toppin will never be mistaken for a defender. But the kid has a motor and seems more focused on that side this season. He was everywhere. Sometimes in the wrong place, but God bless him for trying. Kevin Knox, take note.

Celtics were switching everything tonight. Randle took advantage by pulverizing smaller defenders like Brown and Langford. He also got into the facilitating act swinging pass after pass to Barrett who at this point, had officially woken the hell up. One possession saw him hit Barrett to nail one of his patented corner threes, then another for a ferocious dunk. Then Barrett caught a Randle pass and got fouled at the bucket on his way to hit both free throws. “Boston Sucks” followed right behind as Brown shot his free throws. Every game is a playoff game in Madison Square Garden.

Now we’re seeing the Obi Toppin we thought we drafted last year. Give Toppin 10 feet of space and he’s money. He has an array of moves to stay open combined with elite athleticism. Two minutes into the fourth quarter he had 10 points off the bench. He just needs to refine his three-point shot to make the jump to whatever level awaits him.

Brown got back into he game with a three, only to be answered by Rose on the other end for his own triple. Next possession Rose alley-ooped to Toppin for a monster flush. The hesitation and self-doubt which plagued Toppin last season is gone. Has been since Summer League. In it’s place is a dawg off the leash. Now he gets rid of the ball quicker and doesn’t hesitate when he has an advantage on offense with smaller defenders.

Marcus Smart hit a three at the 7:40 mark in the fourth to bring Celtics’ deficit back to five. A couple of missed shots by the Knicks and they were back on shaky round. Until, finally, Knicks fans saw what they were waiting for. Kemba Walker pulled up from three at the top of the stripe. Elfrid Payton could never. Then a Toppin score in transition. A Fournier charge. Knicks up by 10.

The Celtics bench was lacking all night. A few good moments from Robert Williams, including a three was quickly matched by Randle on the other end. Our “engine” as Thibs calls Randle, never let the game get out of hand. He was there for a clutch bucket. A pump fake and blow by dunk bookended the next time down to give the Knicks their largest lead at 11. Randle with the 30 piece and in dialogue with Knick fans sitting courtside keeping him hype.

Grant Williams struck back with a timely three to cut it to eight. Then another to cut it to five. Toppin struggled to contain the leak-outs to the perimeter. Walker took a charge to give the ball back to New York. The dude is all heart. Next play down on defense he took a Tatum elbow to the face, complimenting a Toppin block. Knicks remained up five with 1:30 to play. Brown hit a driving lay-up with a poor Knicks defensive line-up to cut lead to three until Fournier, without blinking, pulled up from three.

Knicks up six.

Randle smacked a Brown dribble into a turnover only to be balanced by a Celtics steal and make on the other end. Back to back careless plays by Walker. Barrett committed a smart foul on Robert Williams, who hit both in clutch fashion to cut the Knicks lead to three with 11.5 remaining. Thibs made the smart substitution of Robinson in for Toppin for defense and rebounding. Thibs also subbed Burks in for Walker to close the quarter out, who swiftly hit Fournier with a clutch cut to the basket. Thibs with the clutch substitution which pays instant dividends!

Leave it to Brown to keep the nerves high off the pindown near the Knicks logo for three. Randle hit two free throws, but Marcus Smart tied the game at the buzzer on a defensive breakdown by multiple Knicks, but mainly due to Fournier doubling Tatum on the outlet pass and Walker leaving Smart on a defensive misread. Tie ballgame. Enter overtime with the pendulum squarely in the middle.

Brown gave the Celtics the lead back as soon as OT started with a three form the top of the stripe. Fournier answered with a three of his own off a catch and shoot. A Schroeder drive is again, answered by a Fournier three. It’s only one game but damn Walker is a piss poor defender when it counts the most. Fournier converted a dribble hand-off into another three. Smart answered with one of his own. Tie ball game with 3:20.

Barrett broke the tie with his own three from where? The corner. Just to be answered by Tatum in the corner as well. A staunch defensive stance put the ball back in the hands of Barrett for a three. Fatigue was high for both teams after a hot start from three. Who will answer the bell?

At this point, both teams legs are Jell-O. It would have been the right time to insert Rose for some clutch drives but Thibs stayed with the line-up of Walker, Fournier, Barrett, Randle, and Robinson. Robinson’s athleticism gives the Knicks an element they sorely missed last playoffs. He is able to soar for rebounds that Noel and Gibson only look at from above. Barrett locks up Tatum on a legend-making defensive stop.

Double overtime.

Brown hit his 45th and 46th points to open overtime to add to his career high. Typical for the Knicks to give superstars their career games. It’s something that happened a lot over the years. Barrett hit a driving score to cut the Celtic lead to one. Knicks got bailed out by a Robinson foul just to see Fournier brick a three on the other end. Mitch provided the Knicks with excellent rebounding (17 boards) and defense. Thank God he added the weight — it’s showing by out-muscling defenders for loose boards.

With the Celtics up by one and 1:08 left, the question was “Where do the Knicks go?” Randle? A Barrett three? See what Rose can bring? Nah. Fournier answered by drilling a three.

Fournier (32 points) became the first Knick to score 30 in a debut.

In the end, both teams laid everything on the line. Almost all 10 players on the court were on fumes. But in the end, Thibs won the chess match by inserting Rose into double overtime with a fresh pair of legs. Thibs plays every second like the last second. In a double-overtime game it would take such an approach to churn out a brutal win. What a start to what will be an epic season. As P&Ter Dr. Mets and Giants All Day noted, last year doesn’t look like much of a fluke.