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Suns 115, Knicks 114: “Vengeance won’t change the path”

Not a fun way to lose.

NBA: New York Knicks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

(Author’s Note: Please listen to this song on repeat as you skim this recap, because it’s what I listened to as I wrote this)

What feels like two years of shitty basketball have turned me into a nocturnal animal.

On Friday night, the Knicks played the Suns, on the road in Phoenix. The Knicks had been the victims of a few recent losses in winnable games, so there was little reason to believe they had any chance against arguably the best team in the NBA. But there was a glimmer of hope. Last spring, Suns-Knicks was the game of the season. They took them to the brink of a tenth consecutive win, but Chris Paul, in a truly charmed season that would carry Phoenix to the Finals, was masterful down the stretch in a win for Phoenix that felt like one for the Knicks.

Also, there was no Devin Booker, and no Chris Paul. The Knicks were spared watching the best starting backcourt in the league squaring off against the worst starting backcourt in the league (AB and Even Fournier). But it was a 10 PM west coast start, and *shudder* Mark Jones and Richard Jefferson called the nationally televised game. As someone with a spotty record covering games this year, (at this point, what P&T recapper doesn’t?) I was prepared for a bloodbath. As always, I was somehow correct, but shocked and hurt in incredible fashion. My only solace was a great meal before the game at Ensenada, a new Pacific coast, seafood focused Mexican restaurant in Williamsburg that I made the Thibs like, head scratching decision to take my ill mannered kids to, and the bottle of Spanish Orange Garnatxa I continue to wash this loss down with as I write.

This city is a cesspool. It’s angry. Scarred, like me.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Julius Randle was aggressive early. Randle was cooking soup, but it was stone soup reduced by the heat of his sour resentment rather than fire. I didn’t realize the significance of this until after the fact as I looked over my notes, but he really cared about yelling at the refs in the first half, and let’s be honest, he’s become an increasingly annoying nag throughout the season, taking out his frustration of getting a massive contract extension and adding to the pile of his generational wealth on officiating, and the fans, and probably his adorable son and like, stray kittens in the alley where the players get into their cars inside the bowels of Madison Square Garden. If he disagreed with a single call, he would keep the running dialogue through the next possession, back onto offense, through timeouts. I imagine in his sleep tonight he’ll murmur “he jumped into me!” between honks and shoos.

It was a frustrating first quarter because the Knicks appeared to outplay the Suns, but thanks to some elite shot-making on one end and elite shot missing on the other (RJ, sadly, just didn’t have it going tonight. Most of the decisions were correct, he never stopped attacking the rim, which is his superpower, but the numbers speak for themselves, 6-26, 20 points, 5 rebounds, -12. We will get to why he probably had to shoot more than he should’ve in a bit) they came out of the quarter down two. But there’s an incredible, very Jewish sensation the Knicks give off now, where regardless of how good a game is going, you kind of have this sensation of holding your breath.

I had to put my season long campaign against Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau on hold for much of this evening. With Rose, Grimes, and Obi out, he was relatively adventurous with his minutes in the first half. Sims, IQ, Deuce and Cam Reddish all got burn (together!). Cam had flashes, he appears to either have always had or recently adopted RJ’s mentality of never stopping bullying his way to the rim with a silky finish when he gets there, and the Knicks had their best success during this period attacking JaVale McGee. The emergence of Sims, who according to Shams, didn’t fly to the game, but instead rode there on the back of a giant blue ox, continues to be one of the very few sources of true joy in my life. In the end, six guys still ended up with the lion’s share of the floor time, including one of Thibs’ absolute worst calls of the season, but patience, we’ll get there soon enough.

I watch these games every few nights. Sometimes I write about them. I wish I could say I’m making a difference, but I don’t know.

The third quarter should’ve been a classic Knicks horror show, the Suns came out laser focused, locked in on D and hit big shots……. Only it wasn’t! Because the Knicks were too! Even given the result, tonight was a throwback game that reminded you how feisty, competent, and FUN that team was last season. Knicks were pushing ️(ace), and it was a refreshing respite. I’m sure there’s some flimsy statistical argument for it, but there’s just no question to me that we’re a better team with IQ handling point duties over AB. Even if it’s not in the numbers right now, I believe we’ll never know if he’ll get there without the reps. And this was a night AB was actually fine (in his 35 MINUTES!!!!). We’re simply faster, more explosive, and less predictable when Quick is pushing the pace off a miss, or even just darting around as a chaos agent in the half court. The Knicks outscored the Suns 38-23 in the third.

Randle was fairly brilliant and efficient through most of three quarters (9-18 for 25, +8), but even without the coming horror, I’d award the game ball to my adult son Mitchell Robinson. Robinson is the human equivalent of why pencils have erasers. He cleaned up every single mistake tonight, getting Kobe assist after Kobe assist, literally went 100% from the field on 8-8 shooting because I’m near positive it was all oops or putback dunks. The brewing chemistry between he and RJ is delicious. Anyone left on the fence about whether or not we need to extend this man should get into Formula 1. In a league that gets smaller every season, there are just so few players left with Mitch’s size and skillset. Sims ironically could become one, but even when he is, the team could be looking at a two headed monster that will be a formidable assignment around the NBA for the next five plus years, should the team do the reasonable, logical thing this offseason.

Ok. Fuck, let’s get to it. Near the end of the third, with the Knicks up 10, in the midst of a chippy all game back and forth with Cam Johnson, Julius gets shoved by him in the back on a rebound, bumps chests with Cam, the two players are separated by a ref, then Johnson must’ve said some shit, and Julius reaches over a ref, through his outstretched arm, and shoves Cam, and that was the end of the night for Julius. Knicks were up 10 at the time. It was an old school Knicks move in a new NBA, and I’ll be honest, I liked it. It was a game with great vibes, Julius looked awake and alive in a way he hasn’t in a while. In my head, I’m getting ideas. The ejection is a symbol, a statement. Maybe we look back on this as the rallying point of a shitty season. The team is nearly out of the woods in terms of its recent schedule of death, which went as poorly as it possibly could’ve, they were five games out of the play-in, but could’ve cut that number down, who knows. My brain was probably hemorrhaging from years of being exposed to this franchise, but I liked Julius finally puffing his chest out and giving a shit. And I was wrong, I guess.

They think I’m hiding in the shadows, but I am the shadows.

After Julius went to the locker room, Thibs responded by going as small as I’ve seen all year, playing RJ at the four with IQ, Burks, Fournier and Sims, and you were waiting for the Suns to immediately erase the lead, but a few timely responses from IQ settled then ballooned the lead to 12.

But in the fourth, it was another game, another career high for a young, mid level player on the other team. This time it was Cam Johnson, the Knicks chief antagonist and tormentor. He apparently came into this game shooting 44% from three, and now is shooting *checks notes* 78% after going 9-12 from beyond, for a total of 38 points on 11-16 total. Make or miss, indeed.

The Suns were a two Cam show in the fourth along with Payne, who notched a career high in assists. I would like to give better analysis of that quarter, but I was swept up in the reverie of one of the few truly great games I’ve been treated to this entire season. Live Tweeting observations no one saw or cared about, stomping around my apartment and clapping my hands, yelling at the television screen in a way I’ve had little chance to this year, to the great chagrin of my neighbors above, below, and next to me, I’d imagine. But with all that said, in the fourth I began rooting for the Knicks to use all the clock in their possessions with nine minutes left, the equivalent of playing prevent, not a great sign. You just kind of knew as long as there was even a slim chance, the other shoe was going to drop, and it did.

We were waiting for Thibs to put his hotdog and candybar grease smudged fingerprints on the game, and he finally did. Down the stretch, the Knicks got some interesting, comfortable minutes from Cam Reddish, who had a few consecutive sequences where he notched a few clutch baskets, and drew an offensive foul by running through a screen. Catnip for a hard nosed virgin like Thibs, right? Wrong. Cam was immediately pulled after a bucket with a few minutes left for Evan Fournier, who took a few shots but never hit the rim, and blew a few crucial assignments on defense when it mattered most. From the bottom of my heart, Tom Thibodeau, go fuck yourself.

And the game winner. In another popular comic book film, there’s this scene where Doctor Strange goes off to the side of the action, and meditates, floating four feet off the ground, in a full lotus position, cycling through the 68,000,000 ways the coming conflict could play out. And in the end, he comes up with exactly one way the heroes could win, and that’s what the Suns ended up with in this game. A decently AB defended, like 34 footer from Cam Johnson, with the Knicks up two, that he got cleanly out of his hands just before time expired, that miraculously banked in. IQ doubled over like he was shot. I fell on the floor.

And what else can you say? Where I grew up, when someone would hit a shot like that in a pickup game, a popular refrain was “That wouldn’t count at the Boys & Girls Club”, where you have to call bank before throwing up some lucky bullshit. But the NBA isn’t the Boys & Girls Club. That wail you heard as Johnson’s shot banked in was the collective relief of the millions who took the Suns money line in their Draft Kings parlays tonight, congrats and fuck you all. It’s fine. At this point, it’s ok to eat fish cause they don’t have any feelings.

Notes:

-Knicks are 25th in the league this year in FT%. I can’t understand how it’s possible that a kid who clearly works as hard on his game as RJ Barrett struggles like this from the nail.

-I liked nearly everything I saw from Cam Reddish tonight and we’d be fools to get a new coach and not bring him back for a shot, as long as no other team drops a ridiculous bag on him.

-I can’t look at Deandre Ayton without thinking about Old Face Andre from The Wire, not necessarily a resemblance, but the name just fits so perfectly.

-Chris Paul And The Technicolor Dream Neyo Cardigan. What an interesting turning point not getting CP was in retrospect. A lot of fans hemmed and hawed when it was rumored as an offseason possibility on the money and the years, but God, what I wouldn’t give for his services today. It never ended up even being on the table, but I love Chris Paul.

-In the Suns’ arena, they played “Money Power & Respect”, “C.R.E.A.M.”, and “Pump It Up” among other rap anthems as their team took the ball up the floor. Which made me curious as I scanned the lily white crowd between the action, so I looked it up, and according to Wikipedia: “Black people or African Americans made up 3.4% of Arizona’s population; of which 3.3% were non-Hispanic black people.” So yeah, the Suns are a joy to behold this season and they may win a chip, but for the team, for the players it must make you itch sometimes to be doing this in front of this crowd, in Krysten Sinema’s Arizona. If you think I’m being petty and desperately trying to console myself with literally anything after a heartbreaking loss, good call.

-I didn’t quote a reader comment in my header because the theme of this recap was dedicated to Matt Reeves’ The Batman. I doubt we have many After Yang types reading (and if you are, I’m that too! Great movie!), not just the recap but pouring through the notes, so apologies that I’m going mask off as a shameless blockbuster IP guy, but The Batman is a piece of pop gold I’m excited to rewatch with my family tomorrow. I’m pretty sure it’s a film about a young boy who was so badly traumatized after watching tonight’s game, he dedicates his life to dressing up in a rubber suit and righting the world’s wrongs.

-On a final note, I know theoretically we’re supposed to root for every loss, and for tank’s sake we should be grateful we got a great game and an L tonight, but I just can’t get there with you nerds. I want this team to hit a switch. I want a few weeks of fun, competitive basketball like we got tonight. There’s no baseball on the horizon, and the Yankees may suck when it does come back, then I have the Jets to look forward to in the fall. I need this. The Pelicans got the number one pick with the eleventh best odds, there’s still some basketball to be played, maybe tonight was a motivating loss that we’ll look back at as a point of departure. Let’s go play in.