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Knicks 101, Hawks 92: “What a stunning turnaround”

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Good God that felt good.

Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

One night in grad school a boy I liked asked me to meet him at a bar called The Old Pink. I got all dolled up, thinking I was headed for one kind of night. When I got there he mentioned his girlfriend was there, the one he’d never really talked about, and did I want to meet her? I didn’t, but excitedly agreed; this boy was never going to get a glimpse of knowing he’d crushed me.

I met his girlfriend and instantly forgot all about him. I’d never been so attracted to anyone. Things progressed and yada yada yada later she asked me “When are you and I going to make out?” Her boyfriend stood 20 feet away, watching. I kissed her. A lot. Like, for an hour. A night that started one way would end somewhere far, far away.

Down 13 to Atlanta in the third quarter of Game 2, the New York Knicks seemed headed for a crushing defeat. Tom Thibodeau had started Elfrid Payton again, subjecting the team to a seven-point hole before mercifully pulling a player whose head is not in place to compete at this level. Julius Randle followed Game 1’s stinker with a silent but deadly first half, i.e. not making a single basket. After Sunday’s heroics, Alec Burks had come back down to Earth. RJ Barrett struggled with his shot. Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanović continued to torch the Knick defense. And this...this?! I don’t think Kevin Huerter knew he could dunk like this ‘cuz I don’t think he’s ever been this wide open before.

The crowd had been quieted. Their team was adrift, a raft stuck on a windless sea. They needed a push. They got one. Literally.

I’m not sure how or why Reggie Bullock churlishly knocking De’Andre Hunter to the ground would inspire the Knicks rather than the Hawks. If it did, the comeback oven took a while to preheat; soon after Bullock’s flagrant on Hunter, Barrett fouled him on a 3. But once the Knicks warmed up they stayed hot; a 57-35 second half gave them a 101-92 win to even the series 1-1.

Randle hit a 3 early in the third quarter to break his duck, but it was after RJ’s foul of Hunter that the man awarded the Most Improved Player award shortly before the opening tip reminded the Hawks what he’s got. He hit another 3-pointer, drew a shooting foul challenging Clint Capela, drove and dished to Derrick Rose for an elbow 3, then drove again and scored over Capela. The never nervous dervish pulled New York within four.

Bullock may have been the most improved player from Sunday to last night; after missing all five of his 3-pointers in Game 1, he hit 4-of-7 last night, including a pair to tie the game at 72.

The Knick defense looked a lot more like the one we saw the first half of the season. They were certainly aided by the Hawks themselves, who missed a million good looks, especially from deep. Bogdanović cooled off, by which I mean he missed like two in a row.

Randle was a perfect 4 for 4 in the third. The Knicks, as was the case Sunday, took the lead into the fourth quarter. As was not the case Sunday, they won. The end result was different in part because the endgame opened differently. Translation: once the Knicks pulled in front, they stayed there. Burks brought some breathing room.

That added air was needed ‘cuz Obi Toppin was taking it to heights humans rarely reach.

So so pretty.

The bench has more than held its own all season, so when Thibodeau’s team took a one-point lead into the fourth quarter of the biggest game in eight years, he rested Randle and Rose (who played 31 straight minutes in this one) and trusted his reserves. Even after Nate McMillan sent Young and Bogdanović back in, Thibs sat his big two another two minutes, and the gamble worked: the lead got as high as 10 and was three about midway through the quarter when Randle and Rose returned.

A 9-0 Atlanta run cut the lead to one. On a night when Rose turned back the clock for 39 minutes and 26 points, his old Chicago and Minnesota running mate played as big a role as anyone in the win. Among Taj Gibson’s contributions on the night was the offensive rebound that led to the Bullock trey that quadrupled the lead to four.

The defense held the Hawks scoreless for the final 4:30, until Huerter hit a meaningless free throw at the end. After a miraculous sequence where Capela somehow could not get multiple point-blank bunnies to drop, Bullock again figuratively stood on the shoulders of a literal giant.

Randle finished strong, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s with a dish to Taj for a dunk and a side-step finish of his own. And the people rejoiced.

Notes

  • Thibodeau started Rose and Gibson in the second half. Thank God. It felt like a bad prank finally quit. Look at how happy this dude is to be a Knick.
  • Like in Game 1, the Knicks bossed the glass, especially the offensive glass. I did not see that being a thing.
  • The good: the Knick bench outscored the Hawks’ 55-22.
  • The bad: Atlanta’s non-Trae starters plus Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari combined to shoot 16-of-54 (30%).
  • The ugly truth: winning this series means dealing with someone who can do both these things:
  • You know how sometimes people get stranded at sea for a while so they drink their own pee? In the first half when the Hawks were bossing the game the Knicks offense was a nightmare, but they got subsistence points at the free throw line. Ergo, free throws taste like pee.
  • “O-bi!” chants had Mama Toppin in tears. (:
  • I don’t feel like Atlanta suffers when John Collins is out of the game. At all. I hope his foul trouble last night — five in 15 minutes — didn’t accidentally turn McMillan & Co. on to the benefits of life without J.C.
  • If George Mikan, Bill Russell, Baltimore Bullet Earl Monroe and Michael Jordan didn’t get personalized f-bombs dropped on them, why exactly does Trae Young?
  • If Frank Ntilikina doesn’t play in this series...like, he’s a goner, right? If Thibs doesn’t think he has value in this matchup, he can’t think he ever will.
  • Tony Snell looks like he’s seen some shit, shit humans aren’t meant to see. The birth of a Celestial, the death of a black hole...something. His eyes have seen too much.
  • To the Delta commercial where the narrator says: “The world brought us change. But it didn’t change who we are” — that’s the problem, yo.

Quoth Heart Like John Starks: “What a stunning turnaround.” I was getting a bit of an old forgotten but familiar taste in my mouth in the third — the taste of playoff disappointment. Instead we ended up with gobs full of hope. Game 3 is in Atlanta Friday night. Imagine the taste of them winning that one.