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Nets 117, Knicks 112: “What a bastard”

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So close. And yet...

NBA: New York Knicks at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The city that never sleeps was especially restless after the Knicks fell 117-112 to the Brooklyn Nets last night. In a game many tried and failed to downplay, New York fell behind by plenty before a long, late comeback crested in the final seconds, then died with the game’s penultimate whistle. It’s hard to say what we learned from this one — we already know the Nets are good, and they were. Already know these Knicks inspire belief and pride, and they perspired and inspired. Already know it sucks when the refs let you down, and that they did.

Kevin Durant didn’t play (hamstring strain); ditto Elfrid Payton (unrelated hamstring strain) and Derrick Rose (COVID protocol). With both point guards out and Frank Ntilikina listed as day-to-day (being Frank Ntilkina), Immanuel Quickley made his first career start and a thousand Knick Twitter obsessives got their wings. In a game featuring three All-Stars, the early offensive fireworks came courtesty of Jeff Green and Reggie Bullock.

The Nets were making sweet music under the baton of James Harden, who had five assists in the first quarter, many of which helped Green put up 14 in the frame. The pace was more to Brooklyn’s liking, as was the fact that after the best stretch of RJ Barrett’s career saw him put up a personal-best 32 last game, the Knicks came out determined not to run any plays for him. Still, they were prolific from downtown, scored 30 in the first and yet were still trailing; the opponent shooting 70% from the field and 57% on 3s tends to do that.

The Nets stayed hot in the second, hitting nine straight and riding a 10-0 run to a 15-point lead. Harden was both brilliant and ruthless, falling just three rebounds shy of a first-half triple-double.

Between he and Kyrie Irving, the Nets had the two best players on the floor.

The marquee names draw eyeballs, but it’s the ensemble work that makes a show a success. The Nets outrebounded the Knicks by nine on the defensive glass and outshot them 65% to 38%. The team that gives up the fewest points per game surrendered 67 in the half to the team that scores the most. Something needed to change. Something did.

There were glimpses of light throughout the third, but they were false dawns. After New York cut the deficit to 10 with a deep Quickley 3, Barrett missed a wide-open corner 3 and Randle’s lob to a wide-open Nerlens Noel was errant. Joe Harris hit from deep and just like that instead of single-digits the gap was 13. Green left with what looked like back trouble, but returned three minutes later, which, like, hooray on a human level that he was OK but it didn’t help the Knicks any. The Knick defense gave up 96 after three quarters and the offense looked worse. Julius Randle could not get on track and the Knicks could not get back in the game. Until both their fortunes flipped in the fourth.

Alec Burks hit a pair of 3s to pull the Knicks within seven, then six. Randle released the Kraken.

Ntilikina, who had one of his more dissonant box score. vs. eye test games, picked up like nine fouls in five minutes, but Tom Thibodeau left him and Burks in through the fourth, relegating Quickley to the bench. Perhaps Thibs is a master of irony and benched IQ so the stans could feel their feelings about him starting but not closing. The performance art ended when Ntilikina fouled out with just under 4:00 left and Quickley checked in. It seemed like the comeback ended shortly after, when Bullock and Burks missed 3-pointers on consecutive possessions and Harden tossed in a floater to bump the lead to seven.

The Knicks kept coming but couldn’t ever line up the game-changer. Quickley penetrated and found Randle for 3 to make it a four-point game. Down five soon after, RJ missed an open 15-footer. Burks got a good look at a 3 with 30 seconds left, but couldn’t connect. At that point the Knicks could have done what infuriates me every time I see it, i.e. foul instead of trying hard for a steal or tie-up. Instead, THE KNICKS TRIED FOR STEALS AND TIE-UPS AND VOILA! SHIT HAPPENED.

The Knicks forced what should have been a turnover when Burks and RJ appeared to get the ball away from Harris, but the refs called a foul. Thibodeau appealed and won, but after reviewing the play for three passes of the sundial the officials called it a jump ball at center court. Randle won the tip and the Knicks called their last timeout. They inbounded to Randle, who went up for 3 and came down with the ball, whistled for an up-and-down. Kyrie hit the ball on Randle’s way up, but the refs missed the call, then compounded their human error with bureaucratic absurdity and never reviewed what was blatantly a critical — and close — call.

I’m not bothered by the refs making a mistake. I’m bothered by Scott Foster acting like he’s got dinner reservations in 15 minutes so to blazes with whether or not he missed the call.

I wasn’t the only one bothered.

Ever been knocked unconscious? The resumption of reality is, interestingly enough, disorienting. Ever been so cold it hurts when you get feeling back? The Knicks play important games every night now. So what in past years would be a moral victory is instead a loss that hurts, but the pain means you’re feeling again, and if you’re feeling then you’re alive. Welcome back to life.

Notes:

  • The offense always gets the headlines, but Randle’s defensive portfolio continues to grow.
  • Harden guarding Randle in the post is something I’d enjoy a lot over a best-of-7.
  • Harden is such a brilliant passer. I will never love him because of the dark arts, the cynicism, the flopping, the seemingly unending quest to win playoff fouls more than playoff games. But as a scorer, he’s in rarified air. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone who could score and dish as well as him. Like, Michael Jordan wasn’t a better passer than Harden. LeBron James isn’t a better scorer. Am I not thinking of someone? Does anyone best Harden in both categories?
  • If Kyrie had his skills but was six inches taller, would he be the best player in the league? Would the added height guarantee better defense? Would he be Carmelo? Where do you rank a 6’9” Kyrie Irving?
  • Ntilikina is KILLING me with these scoop shots that never go in. I always get my hopes up and they’re always too strong and bounce off the front rim. The Knicks need to find the best scoop lay-up shooter they can and hire them this summer to work with Frank and RJ on scoops. Steve Nash was always terrific at those, but he already has a decent job.
  • WHY DO TEAMS GET TO CALL CONSECUTIVE TIMEOUTS AND ADVANCE THE BALL PAST HALFCOURT?! WHAT’S WITH ALL THE RULES LATE IN GAMES THAT DISADVANTAGE THE PRESSURING TEAM?! FANS LIKE DRAMA!!!
  • Brooklyn half-full: when you see a team with Kyrie and Harden using so many possessions, and then imagine Kevin Durant returning at some point to soak up even more, it seems possible that the Nets are just too big to fail.
  • Except, and here’s where the glass gets half-empty: the Nets are 100% NOT too big. For all the head shaking and laughing there is at how obvious the Harden trade was a can’t-miss grand slam for the Nets, the Nets’ biggest question marks before they shipped out Jarrett Allen in the Harden trade were size and defense. The postseason is an entirely different ecosystem than games 1-82.
  • Man, Joe Harris kills you. Whenever you’re a stop and a bucket away from momentum, he’s the guy who hits a 3 to push you back down underwater.
  • The Knicks entered the game 12-3 when they hit 40% or better from deep. They’re now 8-17 when they don’t — 36% tonight; they hit five of their first seven but couldn’t sustain it.
  • DeAndre Jordan entered the game shooting 78% from the field this season, which is interesting for a few reasons. Could Jordan break Mitchell Robinson’s field goal percentage record set only last season? And if Jordan remains near 80% from the field and 50% from the free throw line, will that be the widest disparity in NBA history?
  • Jordan played some good free throw defense on Quickley’s first attempt. Just as IQ was releasing his shot, Jordan jumped into the lane. It clearly rattled Quickley, who missed and immediately complained to the officials, who did nothing and who, as you may have heard, did not have the best night.
  • This would be some first-round matchup. Especially if the NBA did what’s right and made the opening round best-of-5 again.
  • I LOVE the Nets jerseys tonight.
  • Hearing Mike Breen on ESPN with Doris Burke, an exceptional analyst, versus Clyde Frazier, an avuncular friend, is a very different headspace. If Burke succeeds Frazier and does 82 games a year with Breen, I’m here for it.

Quoth Purist__: “What a bastard.” This game was a tough bastard. It doesn’t get much easier; after facing one of the league’s elite minus their top gun in Brooklyn, the Knicks’ next game is tonight in Philadelphia. The 76ers are without Joel Embiid but still boast Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and the East’s best record. The Knicks have a chance at a .500 road trip and a winning record overall. See you then.