The shooting? That part will come and that part will go. We saw that on stark display the last two Knicks games, both against the Magic. In Orlando, they were like a team full of happy hour pop-a-shot champs. In New York it looked like they were trying to force a medicine ball into a thimble. All in the space of 51 hours.
So yes: the 10-for-16 3-point display the Knicks put on across the first 24 minutes Tuesday night — the surge that propelled them to a stunning 62-42 lead at the half and a satisfying 112-99 win over the 76ers at Madison Square Garden — was something to watch. It was something to behold.
It kept the Garden on its feet, chased the Sixers back to the Turnpike, fueled, at last, the end of a 15-game Knicks losing streak to Philly that dated to April 12, 2017.
But there were a few other things that made the night feel extra important. There were the 11 assists on their first 18 made field goals. There was the fact that of those 62 first-half points 10 different players scored, none more than Kemba Walker’s 10. There was, hovering over it all, the two-day stench left over from Sunday’s nauseating loss to the Magic, and the Knicks’ clear resolve to answer for it.
You never want to throw out words like “perfect” this early in a season, certainly not for a half of the fourth game of the season. And Tom Thibodeau isn’t the one who’s going to start handing out superlatives like candy corn on Halloween. But even the exacting coach had to like what he saw.
“What I love about this team,” Thibodeau said, “is we have great depth. “Julius [Randle] was unbelievable, making plays early, that made us really unselfish. We played hard. [Joel] Embiid is a load to deal with. [Tobias] Harris is a load to deal with. It’s a good, solid win. Now we’ll take a hard look at film. There’s a lot of things we have to correct.”
The thing that might really separate this Knicks teams from a lot of teams in the NBA, certainly the Knicks teams before last season, is that they take bad losses every bit as bitterly as the coach does. Derrick Rose wasn’t kidding when he said on Monday that he knew that was going to be a long day since he knows Thibodeau’s moods.
But he wasn’t alone.
“I was sick,” Randle said of his reaction to Sunday’s blooper reel. “I didn’t go to sleep till 4 in the morning. Everyone was sick that we let that one go.”
And Randle actually knew a reference point that hardly any pro athletes are usually able to summon on demand. A year ago, after a surprising 5-3 start to the season and a three-game winning streak capped by a win at the Garden over the Jazz — one of the best wins of the year — the Knicks “played one of our worst games against Oklahoma City,” Randle said, and he was right: a 101-89 humbling at MSG to a Thunder team that would win only 22 games.
That nudged the Knicks off a miniature cliff, a five-game losing streak (longest of the year) that threatened to sabotage the season before it could gather any steam. It was that memory that brought Randle back to the Knicks’ practice facility voluntarily late Monday, and what Thibodeau saw warmed his heart.
“The gym was packed with people working,” he said, shaking his head.
Maybe the Sixers were vulnerable — Ben Simmons is still not with the team, seeking psychological counseling, his situation firmly unresolved — and maybe the Sixers were simply due; going 15-for-15 over parts of four years is hard regardless of the disparity of talent and success.
But the Knicks were ready to burst. After a close first quarter they outscored the Sixers 39-16 in the second. By the break, the 15,218 in attendance were hoarse and out of breath. If they’d expected to see something good, they couldn’t possibly have assumed it would be this good.
“We needed to redeem ourselves,” said Walker, whose 19 points led five Knicks in double-figures and nine who scored at least eight. “This was such a great team win. Everybody contributed in many different ways.”
We won’t call it perfect, and that’s fine, because the Knicks don’t have to be perfect. But if they can approximate what they were for most of Tuesday night at the Garden? That’s pretty damned close.