The pity is that this should’ve been one of the most memorable nights inside Madison Square Garden in years. The Knicks should have been able to survive a depleted Timberwolves team once they absorbed a few early haymakers, come roaring back.
They should’ve been able to keep the lead against a desperate team once they built it in the fourth quarter, should’ve sent a sellout and fully engaged crowd home feeling good about the home stretch of this season.
Mostly, they should’ve been able to salute Julius Randle for the most scintillating performance of his career, a 57-point explosion that was the only reason the Knicks weren’t playing the walk-ons for the entirety of the fourth quarter.
Instead … well, let Jalen Brunson tell it.
“They didn’t miss,” the Knicks point guard said. Then he shook his head.
“But we didn’t make them miss.”
So instead of heading to Miami for a crucial matchup with the Heat feeling good about a four-game winning streak, the Knicks took one on the chin, 140-134, in a game that should’ve been played with a red, white and blue ball and maybe should’ve included a couple of old ABA programs thrown in with the price of admission.
“We were not very good,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, for whom the tape of this game will probably cause significant night sweats and tremors.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Randle was good. Randle, in fact, spent much of the night occupying the kind of zone few players ever do. During a 26-point third-quarter explosion in which he brought the Knicks all the way back from a 16-point hole, he brought all 19,812 people to their feet and kept them roaring until the end of the quarter.
It looked like he had a real shot at Carmelo Anthony’s team-record 62 points.
It turns out he would’ve needed to get there to help the Knicks escape.
He didn’t get there. Neither did the Knicks.
“We gave them confidence early,” Randle said, “and we didn’t put the game away late.”
These Knicks games have been such a surprising run since the start of February that you can sometimes forget just how thin the margin of error for them really is. The Knicks of November and December, you might not have been surprised at surrendering 79 points in a half, 140 for the game. But the Timberwolves came out gunning, and percolating. They made their first six 3s, and hit 78 percent of them for the half.
At one point the Knicks were shooting an even 60 percent from the field themselves — and were trailing by 14. That kind of a night.
Except all was going to be forgiven. Twice in the fourth quarter they took five-point leads. They were about to take another one with 3:07 left but Josh Hart — in what may have been his first misstep in 15 games as a Knick — somehow blew a layup. Minnesota took advantage. Soon, fans who’d thought they’d see history instead started filing for the exits.
And the Knicks’ flight to Miami became a little less of a fun ride.
Still, there were few mysteries attached. There was the grotesque defense across all 48 minutes. There was a subpar game from Brunson, who was still good for 23 points and 10 assists but was quick to throw the cloak of blame over his own shoulders.
“I was terrible,” he said. “I’ve got to be better.”
He wasn’t alone. The loss may have been a bummer but it wasn’t cryptic. The Knicks have been regularly bringing their A games to work with them the last two months. Not this time. Not this game. They’re better than they were, better than expected. But not good enough against a playoff-hopeful team to show up with half-measures.
Miami’s next. They’d better be ready to answer the bell because the Heat know what to do when you don’t.