Until the last minute of regulation, it looked like the Knicks would wrap up a clean, affirming win over the Celtics in Wednesday’s home opener. They’d played well, weathering a 39-point barrage from Jaylen Brown, who looked unguardable despite the fact that he’d just recovered from COVID-19. Sure, they’d gone heavy on Julius Randle isolations, but that was the Knicks’ entire identity last season, and progress takes time, if we are to generously assume that head coach Tom Thibodeau has by now sussed out that there is a whole half of the game besides “defense.”
Randle looked as solid as he did in the previous regular season (we don’t speak of the playoffs). Evan Fournier pitched in sorely needed shooting and playmaking. Obi Toppin sprinted his way through the open court and towards redemption, R.J. Barrett came alive in the second half, and Mitchell Robinson looked bouncy and burly. The Thibodeau-led team even got up a slew of threes. There was a lot to be pleased with, at the outset of the team’s sunniest campaign in years. Nevertheless, the Knicks did their thing and nearly managed to fritter away a fourth quarter they’d led for almost its entirety.
As the Knicks lost their legs and any semblance of a game plan, the ball movement either grew sloppy or stopped altogether. Kemba Walker perpetrated two miserable turnovers in the final minute of the game—in both cases while trying to force-feed the ball to poor overworked Randle, and in both cases allowing Robert Williams to cash in points for the Celtics. With 6.1 seconds left, Jaylen Brown casually pulled up from 27 feet. Even after all that, the Knicks enjoyed a three-point lead with 4.8 seconds on the clock. Fournier sprung a double team, the Celtics swung the ball down the floor to an open Marcus Smart, and Walker couldn’t close out quickly enough to keep him from swishing the three that sent the game to overtime. It’s tempting to reach for a metaphor for this performance but the truth is, nothing is as emblematic of this kind of late failure as the team itself: It was a collapse of Knicksy proportions.
The first overtime began with a flurry of eight straight made buckets between both teams, and ended in a tie, as Barrett clamped up Jayson Tatum on the right wing. The second OT began with Brown hitting his career-high 46 points, and effectively ended when Fournier stepped back for a three, polishing off his own career-high 32-point night, many of those buckets arriving when it was all too clear that the other Knicks had run out of ideas. With this 138-134 double-OT victory, the Knicks began their season by barely, heroically containing the turd within.
“I was a little bit disappointed towards the end of the game, just a lot of mistakes on my behalf. But my teammates saved me,” said Walker, a Bronx native, after his blue-and-orange debut. “I was on the bench praying we won that game, man. I ain’t going to lie. I was on the bench praying we won like, ‘C’mon, please, let’s get this win.’ ”