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Heat 96, Knicks 92: “The end of the beginning”

The end was nigh

NBA: Playoffs-New York Knicks at Miami Heat Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Remember how this season began?

That’s also how it ended. The faces changed — Cam Reddish was shipped to Portland, Evan Fournier to the end of the bench — but not the theme. The very first message the New York Knicks sent the NBA in 2022-23 was: “We’re here and we’re not going away.” They didn’t win that opener in Memphis, nor were they expected to. But they didn’t lose it, either. They hung in there the full 12 rounds and then some. They made the better team win.

The season ended last night in Miami. The 96-92 loss in Game 6 was familiar. There were the Knicks, two wins from the conference finals and not going away. They hung in longer than expected, making themselves better along the way. After falling in Memphis, it was less about the L and more about the hell they’d just raised. Same after last night in Miami. The Knicks are gone. They won’t be forgotten.

With the way New York came out of the gate, it could seem an upset that they’re not returning for a Game 7 Sunday in New York. In the early going the offense was RJ Barrett free throws; he got to the line eight times in the first quarter, draining them all. Then the Little General went to work.

22 in the first half for Jalen Brunson, the first Knick since Bernard King (I believe the second ever?) with four 30-point games in a playoff series. 93 games into the season, the Knicks’ best player’s ceiling remains undefined. It’s not often teams build contenders around players as short as Brunson — in my lifetime, just Detroit around Isiah Thomas and Philadelphia with Allen Iverson. The Pistons added Hall-of-Famers and All-Stars around Zeke and won two titles. The 76ers surrounded The Answer with a B-movie supporting cast and never came close (2001 wasn’t close; that was a sweep that included the bonus track of an A.I. all-timer to open the Finals). Brunson has done nothing but inspire more and more faith in his first year as a Knick. I don’t know if I have words to describe what it’s been like seeing him play.

Unfortunately, the non-Brunson starters shot a combined 5 of 32 from the field, including a disappointing 3 of 14 from Julius Randle, a polemic that’s become endemic. For some people, every lethargic close-out leads them to foam at the mouth; others see a flawed person who contains miracles within having good days and bad. Even on a bad day, Randle did some good.

Say what you will — that’s why God created comment sections — as I say this one thing about Randle and, to a certain extent, Tom Thibodeau (there’ll be more to say about each this offseason): imagine you walk into your kitchen, flick the light switch on, and nothing happens. What’s the very next thing you do? Most of us? We flick it again. But why? Unless you know a switch is flighty, how often does doing what you know doesn’t work end up working out just because you did it again? Not often.

So why do we do it? Flick it a few more times, even? Because it’s a natural reaction when something hasn’t worked out to wanna feel like there’s something we can do about it. A boat stranded in the middle of the ocean will look longingly at one that’s gliding past it without knowing where that ship is even going. We like to feel like we have some say over the world around us. It’s human. It’s also stupid.

The Knicks didn’t lose the series because you’re smarter than Thibs, or because Randle’s some scrub. They didn’t lose because they lost Immanuel Quickley, or because the Heat are a bunch of floppy, dirty players (Kyle Lowry 100% is), or because of the refs, or because Miami is some scary environment. The Knicks lost because they’re young.

Did anyone in any multiverse miss out on alllllll the praise we (rightfully) hoisted upon this team this year for how much of their success came courtesy of their younger players? Players with little to no playoff experience? Go back to that night in Memphis, before the Heat stumbled through an implausibly poor shooting season. The Knicks got farther than the Grizzlies in the playoffs, and it’s not like the Grizz collapsed; they were the 2-seed in the West. The Heat are now in the Eastern finals for the third time in four years. Experience matters. Experience is, to some degree, related to stability: if you move too many parts around too much, they never get a chance to gel.

Thibodeau has room to grow. So does Randle. So does Brunson, RJ and everybody else (there’ll be more to say about EVERYBODY this offseason). How often do teams wildly exceed expectations, fire the coach who established a culture where there’d been none in forever, trade their only two-time All-NBA player and get better? There are no sacred cows to speak of; the Knicks will need to make tough, bold moves to build from here. They didn’t beat Miami, they wouldn’t have beaten Milwaukee, and they’d be an obvious underdog against Boston and Philadelphia. I’m not saying they have to stay put.

I suppose I’m just saying it’s the day after the Knicks season ended — in the middle of May. I’m tired, exhausted after an unusually long, rich season. I’m neither ready nor willing to dive into the calculus of what moves should come next as we anticipate 2024. 2024 can piss off. It’s still 2023, which goes down as one of the most pleasantly surprising years in franchise history, certainly since 2013, and I’d argue the best since 1992.

Quoth Winston Churchill after the British won the Battle of El Alamein, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Expectations are coming. Pain is coming. Change is coming. This year was a lovely start of something. In the wake of it ending, don’t rush away too quickly. As beginnings go, the 2023 Knicks were a hell of one.