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Cavaliers 95, Knicks 93: “I hate this team”

The Knicks are the Buffalo Bills of the NBA.

NBA: New York Knicks at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve rehearsed a dozen different approaches to recapping last night’s 95-93 New York Knicks’ defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But the truth is I’m in no better of a position right now than the Knicks. My personal and professional lives feel so hopeless at the moment I’m beginning to wonder why I bother with either. Same with the Knicks.

New York fell behind 86-71 in the fourth, then rallied behind an all-bench lineup. A 20-5 run tied it at 91. Immanuel Quickley had an awful shooting night but contributed six assists to just one turnover. Obi Toppin and Quentin Grimes combined to hit seven of 10 3-point attempts. Taj Gibson had a stellar run of play in the first half; traditional bench big Nerlens Noel started in place of the injured Mitchell Robinson and hauled in 13 rebounds. Those guys plus RJ Barrett brought the Knicks all the way back. Barrett, in particular, was a showstopper in the fourth, continuing his recent rampaging run.

With 18 seconds left, Rajon Rondo missed a corner 3 that Noel rebounded. He passed it to Julius Randle, who dribbled up the floor. As soon as Randle passed midcourt, Barrett was open directly in his line of vision, guarded — ostensibly — by Rondo.

Barrett has five inches and 35 pounds on Rondo. For some reason, Rondo shades toward Randle, leaving RJ oodles of driving space to work with, if only he had the ball to work with.

That tall drink of water in Barrett’s path is Evan Mobley, who is already a remarkable defensive talent. But RJ showed no fear attacking Mobley or scoring against him. Perhaps RJ could force a double-team on the drive and kick out to someone for an open look. But Randle, at that point 6-of-16 from the field (RJ was 9-of-15), kept dribbling, east and west rather than north-south, not passing to Barrett until there were six seconds left. RJ missed a contested 3 from deep and Mobley rebounded and was fouled. Game over.

But no! It wasn’t. We live in the shadow of the Buffalo Bills losing a playoff game they led with 13 seconds left. The Cavs, legit up-and-comers, are hardly a steel trap shutting when it comes to endgames. Mobley missed the second free throw, the Knicks called time, and with 1.7 seconds left had a chance to win. Remember the last time Barrett got the ball with a shot to win it at the buzzer?

This was not that.

Usually this is where I’d get into what happened earlier in the game, or I’d dive into the usual post-game “notes” section. Not tonight. For lots of reasons, on and off the court, I just wanna vent. That cool? Cool. Lemme vent. ‘Cuz right now I’m pissed off at pretty much everybody.

I’m pissed at Randle for not reading the room. Barrett shot better all night and was taking it right to the Cavs in the fourth. I understand Randle going the solo route in a game where he’s 11-of-18 from the field. I understand someone like Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony not giving a damn what their numbers are and firing away. Today is the anniversary of a certain 62-point effort.

(A reminder of how things have changed: in Game 2 of the ‘99 Finals, the Knicks scored 67 points. Total.)

Alas, Randle was neither 11-of-18 nor was he Kobe or Carmelo. Truth be told, Randle’s been positively Westbrookian all season.

He did make some big baskets late, but they were all drives into the paint. I tend to defend Randle. And I do think his struggles come from a place of care and effort. It’s something I’ve never understood: a guy like J.R. Smith, who admitted after being shipped to Cleveland that he was sometimes too tired from partying to play well the next game, remains a hero to so many Knick fans. Randle’s struggles are frustrating as hell to watch, yes. But it’s not like he doesn’t care. It’s not like he got his money and now he’s sitting about or strutting about with Westbrookian delusions of grandeur. He’s having a hard time, but he’s neither ignorant nor apathetic to that truth.

To us basketball is a game, a recreation to watch from our couch, but to him it’s his workplace. He’s dealing with a newborn baby in year three of Covid, working a job that constantly exposes him to the possibility of a virus he doesn’t want for himself or his family, for an employer whose response to record infections last month was “We hear no evil; we hear cha-ching.” You never know how someone’s private business is affecting them. I’ve been finding myself wondering if the world would be any different if I were gone tomorrow. OAKAAKUYOAK Michael Beasley has often been the butt of jokes. That’s not always fair.

But where is the head of the snake when it comes to the Knicks? I like coaches not calling timeout in late-game situations, but is there a play or something you can push instead of letting your offense wing it on a night they’d scored 43 in the second half? Remember early in the year when the Knicks’ offensive rating was oddly high but their defensive rating stunk? New York has begun to revert to type on both ends, which means the D’s been much better, but the offense is a piece of stinking offal. I’m a pianist. I’m naturally right-handed, which means when I play difficult songs I never, ever watch my right hand; my eyes are always on the left, because I know that’s more likely to cause an issue. The end of this game felt like Thibodeau relied on his weak hand to just make magic happen.

Then again, maybe it’s our fault for mistaking Thibs for Steve Kerr when he’s really Mark Jackson. Nowadays Jackson is a coaching pariah to many fans and apparently a fair number of NBA CEOs (the term I’m now using in place of “owners”), given that no one’s hired him since his Golden State tenure. Yet the four years before Jackson coached the Warriors, their defensive rating ranks were 23rd, 28th, 29th and 26th. In three years under Jackson, they were 27th, 14th and 4th. Moses never gets to the promised land, but he helps everyone else get there. The four years before Thibodeau came to MSG, the Knicks’ defensive ratings ranked 26th, 23rd, 26th and 23rd. Last year under Thibs they were 3rd; this year their 13th and rising.

James Dolan hired Thibodeau to level the Knicks up, to bring some professionalism and sustained competence to a franchise that has wandered the desert for 20 years. And Thibs has delivered. Not too long ago the Knicks went through a five-year span where they twice went 17-65 and in the Covid-abbreviated 2020 campaign were on pace to finish 30 games below .500. He’s 64-56 since taking over; since Derrick Rose joined him he’s 21-23 in games Rose has missed; even if you take away the 16-4 run late last season, one that seems more and more like an aberration, the Knicks are 48-52 on his watch. If Thibs is the Knicks’ Mark Jackson, that’s fine for the current big-picture. Still, it must be said watching this team’s offense, especially in tight spots, it’s easy to feel a seven-year itch for our eventual Kerr, even as early as year two of our marriage to Thomas Joseph Thibodeau Jr.

I’m pissed at Cleveland for the uninterrupted run of good fortune they’ve been on since 200fucking3. LeBron James falls into their laps, they spend seven years surrounding him with Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams. He leaves for Miami, somehow flummoxing millions who never imagined a 25-year-old lifelong Buckeye choosing an easier job in sunny South Beach working alongside his BFF over a much harder job in cold-ass Ohio working alongside Anthony Parker. The CEO insults him publicly. The Cavs win the top pick in the draft in 2011, 2012 and 2014, which just happens to be the year LeBron decides to return. Cleveland gets back the superstar they didn’t deserve in the first place, win one of the more incredible championships ever in 2016, one of four consecutive Finals appearances. James left again and this same stupid franchise has three top-five picks the past three years, two of whom already look like future All-Stars if not All-NBA selections (Mobley and Darius Garland). And the luck keeps falling their way.

Remember not too long ago when Kevin Love was desperate to escape Cleveland? He put that shit out on Front Street for all to see.

Last night Love put up 20/11/3 on 12 shots in 24 minutes. The Cavs are 29-19, only 1.5 games outta the East’s penthouse. Randle put up 18/7/4 on 17 shots in 33 minutes. The Knicks are 23-25, tied in the loss column with Atlanta for 12th.

Quoth LanceMehl: “I hate this team.” I’ve never thought of myself as hating the Knicks. But I also think hate can’t exist where love didn’t, so maybe I do hate the Knicks. I needed this one badly. Since I was young, Knick wins have been a narcotic to keep the darkness at bay. When your heart wraps itself around a 15-point fourth quarter comeback, only to fall apart in the final 15 seconds, it’s that much harder to bounce back. The Knicks needed this one badly, too — not just in the standings, but to be able to sell themselves (and us) on the storyline that their silver lining is finally here. With two tough road games tomorrow and Friday at Miami and Milwaukee, New York could be losers of six of seven before their next home game. I’m pissed just thinking about it.