Listen, if you want you can focus on who wasn’t playing at Madison Square Garden Monday night. Anthony Davis wasn’t playing at the Garden. He hurt his calf in February, won’t rejoin the Lakers for another couple weeks. The Lakers missed him, you bet.
LeBron James wasn’t playing at the Garden. He hurt his ankle in March. He’s missed 12 games. They miss him, too. The Lakers are 5-7 in those games, absent two of the five best players on Planet Earth. They are diminished. They are wounded. They do not resemble the team that won the NBA title last autumn or will defend it this summer.
If you want, sure. Concentrate on that.
But there was another team at the Garden Monday night, and for the moment it is once again a winning team and once again worthy of the attention of the basketball-loving precincts of the city.
The Knicks beat the Lakers 111-96, and they are 28-27, and they took another step toward solidifying themselves inside the 10-team cutline to play a little extra basketball starting next month. They keep toying with the cliff, keep driving right along the edge, keep threatening to topple over.
And somehow never do.
“This team has a belief,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said Monday, maybe half an hour after his team sent most of the crowd home happy and the Lakers portion of it (probably 25 percent) home to ponder what their team will look like when the varsity is back intact. “We can get it done.”
Six days ago, the Knicks looked like they were finally leaking too much oil after expending so much energy to trying to stay relevant, stay competitive, stay within spitting range of .500. They lost back-to-back stomach-grinders at Brooklyn and at Boston by a total of four points, then trailed Memphis by 13 with 6 ½ minutes to go.
If they were on the back nine, they’d be spraying their drives and chunking their irons and whiffing out of the sand, and one of their playing partners would by law have to mention that “the wheels are falling off.”
Except the wheels didn’t fall off.
Not Friday, when they strung together the most important 11 ½ minutes of the season down the stretch and in overtime against the Grizzlies. Not Sunday, when they tried to gift a game to the Raptors before stealing it back at the end. And not Monday, when they stared at the vintage gold Lakers vestments — still imposing, no matter who’s wearing them — and ran them clear out of the Garden — two days after the Lakers had run the Nets clear out of Barclays Center.
“You go step-by-step,” Thibodeau said. “Some of those games we fell short in at the end we played extremely well. We’re seeing a different intensity level as we go down the stretch and hopefully we can learn as we go. You get knocked down you have to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and go.”
Julius Randle had a ho-hum double-double (34 points, 10 rebounds), but on a night when the laws of probability finally caught up to RJ Barrett (seven points, just 2-for-11 from the field), there was Elfrid Payton playing his best game in weeks, 20 points and a plus-27 rating across 27 minutes. There was Nerlens Noel, dictating the defensive narrative. There was a visit from vintage Derrick Rose, 14 points in 20 electric minutes.
Mostly, there was a grittiness that has become such an essential part of the team’s DNA. There has probably never before been a Knicks bench quite so animated, or a roster that insists the love be spread around.
Even Randle, regularly serenaded with chants of “M-V-P!” now that there are folks allowed to bear witness to his magnificent season admitted the mantras are “cool” but also that “winning is what motivates us.”
Said Payton: “We’re all bought in. We’re all locked in. We all want to see the next man do well. Everyone is playing for each other, there’s no personal agendas. One goal.”
There will come a point when the feel-good element of the season won’t be enough, when reality will intrude on what a delight it has been to watch this team rise and fall and rise again for four months. Maybe that’s still to come in the balance of the regular season, which remains treacherous. Maybe that’s beyond.
Listen, if you want you can wait for the other shoe to drop or the sky to fall. Or you can simply enjoy the ride. And be honest: it’s never a bad thing to see the Lakers walk off the floor on the wrong end of the hyphen. No matter who’s inside the uniform.
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