NEW YORK – There are few people in the NBA today who know what it is like and what it means to really make Madison Square Garden shake.
However, Tom Thibodeau is one of them.
In 1999, Thibodeau was assistant to Jeff Van Gundy’s coaching staff at the New York Knicks when Larry Johnson converted his legendary 4-point game that helped send this year’s number 8 on its unlikely run to the NBA final. These days, it is Thibodeau himself who is patrolling the fringes here. And when Thibodeau was asked before the opening game of the New York playoff series in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks, it didn’t take him long to identify that moment as his favorite memory of MSG.
“I have never heard a building so loud,” said Thibodeau, “how the garden was after that shot.”
It couldn’t have been much quieter than the moments when Trae Young scored the last ridiculous shot in a game full of it for the Hawks, sank a floater in 0.9 seconds and gave Atlanta a staggering 107-105 win over the Knicks – and then telling the 15,000 fans in attendance, including Spike Lee, to shut up.
In the 47 minutes and 59 seconds to that moment, Madison Square Garden was home to a game that was a mix of religious revival and playoff intensity, with notable punches and dramatic swings in either direction.
It was everything Knicks fans have spent in the last 22 years – since that team reached the finals – cheering again, only to endure misery after misery.
There have been a handful of playoff appearances – none in the last eight years – and only one win in the playoff series in the past two decades. Current spurts of excitement like Linsanity and Kristaps Porzingis’ rookie year are outweighed by 16 lost seasons.
And yet, until that last moment of Sunday’s game, it felt like time stood still after Johnson’s shot fell through the net – only to start all over again with this brave upstart team streaking the basketball world this season the first round has amazed.
This season’s Knicks team is kind of a gritty group New York has always embraced. It’s been more than a generation since Patrick Ewing oversaw paint for the Knicks in the 1980s and 1990s, but Thibodeau’s defensive lunchtime bucket mindset was a perfect fit for a group of cocky high-flyers who were no longer expected to have a top spot in the NBA draft lottery to secure home advantage in the playoffs.
It’s the kind of unexpected luck that Gotham fans haven’t experienced much in the past few decades. And coupled with the seasonal inability of more than a few thousand fans to attend MSG by the time it expanded to 15,000 on Sunday, this created an atmosphere that felt just as much like a religious revival as a basketball game.
Even before the game began, the building felt like it was bursting at the seams. These 15,000 people produced an energy and enthusiasm that seemed several times that amount. And when it started, those feelings only intensified.
When Young got off to a hot start – in a minute more over him – the crowd lavishly sang “F — Trae Young” – and then exploded when Julius Randle pushed a 3-point step backwards on possession.
Later, in the second quarter, when the Knicks made a run to return to a game the Hawks had control of much of the first half, Immanuel Quickley hit a pull-up 3 in the 30-foot transition of the building there was an absolute frenzy sent in – firing Quickley to the point where he sprinted back to the other basket and bounced up and down as if he had turned into a human pogo stick. Spike Lee too.
Spike Lee is excited to be back at MSG pic.twitter.com/J8G11UONHy
– Sports illustrated (@SInow) May 23, 2021
And then RJ Barrett almost brought the house down with a ridiculous left-handed slam over Bogdan Bogdanovic in the middle of the third quarter.
However, the Hawks weren’t on board the feel-good story of the Knicks, who returned to the playoffs with a win. Atlanta has a young, talented squad with many players making their playoff debut on Sunday night. And yet, despite their inexperience, the Hawks were more than ready for whatever the Knicks put in their way.
Young, in particular, was someone rival executives and Boy Scouts wanted to see in the playoffs to see if his lean physique and penchant for pulling fouls would last in the NBA postseason melting pot.
Oh has it ever done Not only did Young come up with a dazzling statistic – 32 points, 7 rebounds and 10 assists – but he fully embraced the other thing that MSG has been missing since the glory days of the Knicks: a true villain that fans must hate . Lots of great players have come through the garden in the past few decades, but none since Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan have really been billed as the enemy.
Well, Young is sure to run for that honor after his performance on Sunday, both for his play on the court and for his moxie.
“When you’re in the zone and everyone says, ‘F – you … it got very quiet in the end,” Young told TNT after the game.
“For me, I wanted to hear those ‘F — you’ chants again.”
It’s a pretty safe bet that Young will get his game 2 wish on Wednesday – and likely well beyond that. That’s the kind of reputation a player can only earn by ripping the hearts out of fans in their own building in games that really matter.
These types of games have rarely been seen in New York for the past 22 years. Even if lost, the Knicks – and their fans – are reminding the basketball world that these games at Madison Square Garden can be great fun for everyone.