This was already shaping up to be a referendum on the 2020-21 Knicks, a team that had brought nothing but unbridled joy to a starved basketball city until this weekend. This was always going to be about these Knicks, who are built on a foundation of faith and perseverance, and whether or not they could turn around the terrible tide of momentum that has been dragging them down since they stepped off the team plane in Atlanta last week.
It still is at its core. When the Knicks host the Hawks in Game 5 of this best-of-seven first-round series on Wednesday night, they can give Madison Square Garden one last scream of joy.
At the very least, they can earn themselves another plane ride to Atlanta, another game, and at least another two days of a basketball season that no one wants to end, at least not yet, not in this way.
At the very least, the Knicks will be able to keep their place in the Garden. In Game 6, back in Atlanta, force the Hawks to do the same.
With a Game 7 scheduled for Sunday at the Garden, force them to consider the consequences of not doing so.
Of course, it will now be about much more. Clint Capela, the Hawks’ center, cleared his throat and entertained a Zoom room with some delightfully salty observations about the Knicks and their style of play. He referred to them as filthy. He never said the word “fugazy,” but he certainly described the Knicks as a bunch of want tobe tough guys.
The icing on the cake was this:
“Now we’re coming to your home to win this game again and send you on vacation.”
What’s more, you know what? Capela will benefit from this. The Hawks have reason to be optimistic. They should have a lot of confidence that they’ll win in five, and that they’ll be able to celebrate at half court with the Knicks’ logo (hopefully without dodging concession-stand missiles). For the past four games, they have been the far superior team. They’ve certainly earned the right to wag their tails.
The question now is what the Knicks will do about it.
They decided to let Capela’s words stand for a day without rebuttal.
Julius Randle said, “I don’t care.” “I don’t give a damn. I don’t give a damn.”
Derrick Rose stated, “I’m 32 years old.” “I’ve never said anything like that in my life. I’m not going to start now, when Clint Capela starts talking like a lunatic. “Bro, I’m too old for that s–t.”
RJ Barrett said, “We’ll see [Wednesday].”
“Why would I give a damn what Clint Capela has to say?” Randle says again.
That is, after all, how it should be. The Knicks have spent very little, if any, time telling anyone how good they expect to be this year, or how much better they believe they are. It all came down to proving it. It was all about gaining credit rather than requesting it.
Play it, but don’t say anything.
They get to do it all over again now. Nobody is looking for brawls or verbal shenanigans. Simply play four quarters of basketball that resemble the previous four months rather than the previous four games. If you do that, you’ll get four more quarters in Atlanta on Friday to show that the rumors about your death were greatly exaggerated. Start on Wednesday night, around 7:40 p.m., at the Garden, and squeeze as much season as you can out of it.
Alternatively, you could begin your vacation sooner than you had anticipated.
“The challenge for us is to stay focused,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, before dismissing the Capela valedictory address: “That’s just noise.”
“Be ready for the first quarter,” the coach said. “That’s it.”
Of course, the Hawks aren’t a fluke. They are not to be taken lightly. We’ve seen enough of them in the first four games to be convinced. They’re a more experienced group. They have a terrifying array of shooters, all of whom can get extremely hot very quickly. They promised to shut down Randle, and they did so. They’ve worked hard for their swagger.
The right to crow has been earned.
The New York Knicks? They had earned the right to play this game at home, to save their season in the large gymnasium atop Penn Station. They earned the right to honor the 72 games that preceded the playoffs on Wednesday night, games that allowed New York to care about them again, games that gave the city game a renewed sense of importance in the city’s soul.
Yes, the weather is improving. However, it does not appear to be warm enough to begin vacation. Not right now. No, not yet.