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 the 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 the number 8 of the year on his unlikely run to the NBA finals. These days, it is Thibodeau himself who is patrolling the fringes here. And when asked before the opening game of New York’s playoff series in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks It didn’t take Thibodeau – not exactly the sentimental type – long to highlight this 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 in the moments after Trae Young hit the last ridiculous shot in a game full for the Hawks, sinking a floater in 0.9 seconds and giving Atlanta a heartbeat 107-105 victory 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 the rookie year of Kristaps Porzingis, 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 as Julius Randle Hit a step-back 3 pointer to the following possession.
Later, in the second quarter, when the Knicks took a run to re-enter a game the Hawks had in control of much of the first half for, Immanuel Quickley hit a pull-up 3 in the 30-foot transition that drove the building completely insane – firing Quickley to the point where he sprinted back to the other basket and bounced up and down like he was in a human pogo -Stick transformed. Spike Lee too.
Spike Lee is excited to be back at MSG pic.twitter.com/J8G11UONHy
– Sports illustrated (@SInow) May 23, 2021
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 . A lot of great players have come through the garden in the past few decades, but none since then Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan was really 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.