The last gasp from the best team in the West was a long 3-point attempt from the Nuggets’ peerless Nikola Jokic with 21.1 seconds to go. It never had a chance. The Knicks’ Josh Hart rose to snare his eighth rebound of the afternoon, and the 19,812 people inside Madison Square Garden did likewise, hopping to their feet, lending their voices to a sublime soundtrack.
The Nuggets decided to concede. No fouls, no defensive pressure. The fight was done. The game was over. The Knicks were going to win a highly entertaining game, 116-110, the seconds melting away merrily, the fans roaring lustily.
A few Knicks clapped their hands in thanks, acknowledging the Garden fans. A few of them took pictures with Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt of “Ted Lasso,” sitting courtside. A few just soaked in the adulation. Good times at the Garden.
“I love playing here,” Jalen Brunson gushed a few seconds after the final buzzer, after he posted a 24-point, five-assist workday in his first full game in two weeks. “It’s the best place to play. The best fan base.”
It was Saturday afternoon. It sure has been lately. The win was the Knicks’ sixth in their last seven games at the Garden, a place that had looked like anything but a home-court pleasure dome earlier in the year. The last time at the Garden, the Knicks had stubbed their toe against the Hornets, a game that felt like an ominous harbinger at the time.
Brunson was hurting. They were facing a four-game West Coast swing with this game against Denver lurking on the other side of it. For Knicks fans so used to seasons going sideways at the first available opportunity, it felt like a genuine flashpoint of a season that had started to be almost relentlessly feel-good.
And they survived.
Actually, they thrived. They won the last two games of the trip, both times without Brunson, both times having to come from behind, against the Lakers and Trail Blazers. The schedule-makers gave them a break, three days off between the end of the trip and Saturday afternoon, and that certainly helped minimize the usual NBA truth that a team is never more vulnerable than when playing the first home game after a western swing.
And then Saturday, the Knicks built a 13-point lead before they were outscored by 26 points over the next quarter and a half. A raucous first-quarter crowd had become troublingly tranquil as the Nuggets pulled to an 84-71 lead midway through the third.
“They’re the number-one team in the West so we knew we knew it was going to be a battle,” said RJ Barrett, who turned in a solid 21-point outing on 8-for-13 shooting (8-for-10 from inside the 3-point arc). “They played great on both ends of the floor but having Jalen back was huge for us today. We got a balanced attack from everybody.”
They did. Julius Randle (20), Josh Hart (13) and Immanuel Quickley (10) joined Barrett and Brunson in double figures. The center tandem of Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein kept Jokic from going off (though he still went for a masterful 24/10/8), and it was Robinson’s alley-oop slam off a feed from Brunson that put the Knicks up by six late, and began the party in earnest.
“The fourth quarter was us at our best,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We had a number of people doing a lot of things well.”
And, of course, it helped to have their engine back.
“Jalen,” Barrett said, channeling Jerry Maguire, “completes us.”
Said Thibodeau: “He’s a connector.”
In the first quarter, Brunson was beyond belief, missing his first shot and then making six of his next seven. A little rust crept into his game across the next few quarters but by the fourth he was back, making a couple of huge shots, finding Robinson on that game-clinching dunk, hearing the regulars at MSG serenade him with MVP chants.
It’s a good time to be Jalen Brunson. Good time to be a Knick. And as we head into the bell lap of March, how about this: a good time to be a Knicks fan.
“We have to keep it up,” Brunson said, and then he took one final wave around the Garden, at Knicks fans too jacked to hit the subway platform just yet, or the postgame saloons. Good times indeed.