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Thursday, September 1, 2022

This blueprint will sure be tough to sustain

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They can’t keep following this blueprint, of course. For one thing, it’s a hellacious way to survive the 82-game NBA grind. It might also require local legislation back home in New York, requiring a mandate that Knicks fans have functioning oxygen masks and defibrillators no farther than 10 steps from their televisions.

Also, truly good teams don’t do this.

Truly good teams take a late 13-point lead and make it 20, then make opponents go away. The Knicks know this, because they did this Tuesday against the 76ers at the Garden. But this time, inside a frenzied United Center, they channeled the same mystifying mojo that nearly let them blow a late double-digit lead against the Celtics opening night.

It was 104-91 with 2:13 to go in the game. The Knicks had played one of the most satisfying games they can play, because the Bulls had come after Julius Randle the way the Hawks did in last year’s playoffs, and Randle struggled badly with his shooting. But the Knicks hammered the Bulls anyway. And Randle found other ways to be essential.

“I don’t have to score 30 every night,” he said.

Somehow, now, it was 104-103. There were 4.8 seconds left, the Bulls had the ball, and there was a sense of inevitability to how this would turn out for the home team on a night when they honored one of their most popular players ever, Joakim Noah.

“We took our foot off the gas a little bit,” Kemba Walker admitted.

Now they were about to be flattened by the Bulls’ final uppercut. It was a matter of who’d take the final shot: Zach LaVine? Nikola Vucevic? DeMar DeRozan? It was DeRozan. He took the inbounds, tried to shake his way free. He went to his old standby, the shot-fake.

Kemba Walker fights for the ball with the Bulls’ Zach LaVine.
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“He’s great at utilizing the shot-fake,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “But we were disciplined.”

Somehow, RJ Barrett stayed on the floor. So did Mitch Robinson. DeRozan wasn’t going to be bailed out. He lofted a shot just shy of the horn. From his spot just behind the top of the 3-point arc, LaVine raised his arms in triumph: it looked good from there.

It wasn’t good. It drew air. The Knicks survived, 104-103, they all but sprinted to the locker room, to the bus, to O’Hare. A catastrophic loss was instead a terrific road win. It’s always amazing to realize how razor-thin the difference between the two can be.

“We’re finding ways to win games,” Thibodeau said. “You can nitpick this or nitpick that and you can do that for every team in the league.”

No apologies coming from the coach.

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“You’ve just got to find a way to win.”

The Knicks found a way. Mostly, they got there by playing nearly 46 spectacular minutes, neutralizing a feisty crowd, frustrating the previously unbeaten Bulls. If the level of play, and of players, didn’t necessarily approximate some of the old Bulls/Knicks battles about which so much pregame poetry had been penned, the intensity was every bit as familiar.

Randle couldn’t scare the rim all night yet still nearly had a triple-double, falling an assist shy. Barrett played his best game of the year, both ends of the floor, 20 points on one side, relentless disruption on the other. The Walker/Derrick Rose combo was superb: 33 points, 12-for-22 shooting.

Julius Randle posts up during the Knicks’ win over the Bulls.

They’d done what so many Knicks teams out of the dusty scrapbooks of the ’90s had failed to do: kicked the plug out of the wall at United Center. Quieted the locals. And seemed to bury their spirits, too.

Except they stopped scoring with three minutes to go.

And the Bulls saw an opening. They drew fouls. They made a few shots. They stifled the Knicks: eight straight misses down the stretch. The Knicks lost their composure. Randle went for a tip-in with 41.1 seconds left when just grabbing a rebound would probably have clinched the game. The Knicks nearly turned the ball over up one, then Randle missed two free throws. It was a horror reel.

Right up to the end. Right up to DeRozan’s fake, and Barrett’s refusal to bite, and the airball that stole the rest of the air clear out of United Center.

“Relief, frustration,” Randle said, asked to describe how he felt when the final buzzer groaned and the final shot whiffed. Then he laughed. “I didn’t throw it in the stands this time, though.”

It cost him 15 large when he did that two weeks ago when the Knicks survived opening night. He saved a few bucks this time. As the season goes on, it would behoove him and his teammates to save a few panic attacks among their fans. A win’s a win. But this is sure a tough blueprint.


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