It was opening night of the New York Knicks’ 78th season. Madison Square Garden thrummed with excitement and anticipation and, yes, hope. Fifty years have passed since the Knicks last won a championship. Their last title predated ATMs, mobile phones, laparoscopy, me, maybe you, and many of tonight’s players twice over. Tom Thibodeau was a teenager when Walt Frazier and the Knickerbockers last earned a rafter banner. Yet, there is reason for hope. The squad Thibs coachs now has the best collection of Knickerbocker talent in two decades, but if they will seriously chase a ring this season, they must first get past quality opponents like tonight’s Boston Celtics.
ESPN gave the beantown bums a 59% chance of winning tonight. Boston did, 108-104, and although the game was mucky affair for much of the night, New York gave us a thriller at the end. These Knicks, especially Immanuel Quickley, won’t go down easy. If only they had made their free throws, and Porzingis didn’t score 30. . . .
Opening night jitters hampered both teams early. Kristaps Porzingis, once the unicorn-y hope of New York, attempted and missed the Celtics first shot of the season (a corner three). Both teams struggled to convert in the first quarter of the quarter, with the Knicks missing seven shots, plus two missed free throws by Randle, before Mitchell Robinson flushed for two.
Halfway through the first, the Knicks had shot 2-of-13, or 15%. Further spoiling that stat is the fact that none of their attempts came from deep. Seriously, check this:
Late in the quarter, Boston opened a comfortable double-digit lead. Immanuel Quickley brought a breath of fresh air, leading the reserves with energy and points. Still, Boston remained formidable. In the opening quarter, Porzingis logged 15 points, two dunks, and three threes in 11 minutes. Tatum added 10 points. The Knicks finished the quarter having shot 7-of-26, down 30-18.
Quickley drew first blood in the second quarter with a three-pointer. RJ completed a tough shot with an and-one. The bench squad—IQ, Donte DiVincenzo, Barrett, Josh Hart, and Isaiah Hartenstein—showed more joie de vivre than their first-five counterparts, and methodically chipped at the deficit.
Halfway through the second, Thibs brought back the starters, but with Quickley substituted for Grimes. While others continued to spin in the mud, IQ kept the patient alive. His ruthless three chased the Celts into a time out. Then, Brunson and Barrett canned back-to-back three pointers to cut the lead to four. Once again, Hartenstein slammed a buzzer beater dunk to close a half. Knicks down, 51-46.
The ghosts of seasons past rattled their chains tonight. Randle iso-ball still turns the offense to sludge and yields little. In tonight’s first half, he was 1-of-10. He finished the night 5-of-22. Yet again, the Knicks’ starters lack chemistry. Quentin Grimes took his second shot, a three pointer, with two minutes left in the half. This season, Q is supposed to get the green light to shoot; still he looked stuck on yellow.
C’mon, Thibs, don’t you want more of this?
And the defense, a famous hallmark of Thibs, was as laggy as last year. Boston shot 48% from the floor to New York’s 34%. (Although, NY outshot BOS from deep, 41% to 36%.) The Celtics outscored the Knicks 20-14 in the paint, and outblocked them six to nothing.
Robinson collected his fourth foul to start the second half, bringing Hartenstein back in with thirty seconds gone. The Celtics pushed the lead back up to 12. Brunson continued to be a mixed bag, showing some signs of life, but also flashes of fatigue. Sure, the Celtics play good defense, but they didn’t force Jalen to dribble off his heel; then Derrick White chased JB down on a fast break, easily poking the ball away. Stay fresh, Deuce McBride. The Knicks may need minutes from you if Brunson requires a lighter load.
Julius Randle finally stopped being the basketball equivalent of Foghorn Leghorn and put some timely points on the board. Those, plus an effortless three from Grimes and a brutal dunk by Barrett, helped the Knicks mount a 10-0 run. The lead narrowed to one.
Knicks got MSG turnt up right now pic.twitter.com/HwuKvDWxE1— Randy Cruz (@randyjcruz) October 26, 2023
Neither team relented, nor were they especially efficient. Hartenstein deserves credit for being a beast in replacement of felonious Robinson. He played hard yet carefully (mostly), and without him, Quickley, and Barrett, the team would have sunk faster than the Lusitania.
As fast as the Knicks got hot, they went cold again. Quickley held the rope when his teammates couldn’t, scoring six points in four Q3 minutes. Nonetheless, the Knicks bricked their way to a 82-73 hole to end the frame.
RJ Barrett may be the second most-maligned player after Randle, but he earned his pay tonight. He tied with Quickley to lead the team with 24 points apiece, and that included a clutch RJ three pointer with ten minutes left. Quickley matched that bucket with his own triple, and then a Josh Hart sideline three gave the Knicks their first lead, 88-84.
(Midway in the fourth, Porzingis was dinged for the first flopping tech I’ve seen this season, and then the refs balanced it out with one on Brunson. Told ya Jalen would get one.)
In one amazing Q4 sequence, Quickley stole a lazy inbound pass that became an almost-four-point play for Quentin Grimes. If you hold the opinion that the team’s most important player is the guy who wasn’t given an extension this week, you’ll get no argument here tonight. IQ shot 7-of-11 from the field, 5-of-7 from deep.
The Knicks opened their largest lead—six points—but the Celts are too talented to fold. Porzingis tied the game and then gave Boston a three-point lead. Good defense by Randle—I’m surprised as you by that—forced a steal, but he made only one of two free throws. A foul by Hartenstein led to two more Porzingis points, and then Payton Pritchard hit two freebies to make the advantage four with 10 seconds left. Brunson missed two difficult three attempts, and that was a wrap.
NY shot 44% from deep tonight, yet missed 12 free throws. The latter was a fluke; we’ll find out if the former was, too. Despite the loss, the Knicks played hard. Neither team was sharp, but New York certainly looked worthy of sharing a gym with the Finals favorites. The Knicks gave us plenty to be encouraged about as they proceed into the season. Sam Stein is in the lab, assembling a proper recap. Sleep tight, Knickerbockers.