For a while, this seemed like another snug-fitting chapter in a surprising Knicks novella. For a while, the Knicks were making every shot they looked at, they were defending with their customary ferocity, they were thrilling the small but vocal contingent of Knicks fans on hand at Orlando’s Amway Arena.
Eleven minutes into Wednesday’s game, Immanuel Quickley made a pair of free throws.
The Knicks led the Magic, 32-21.
And .500 was so close, you could smell it. You could taste it. Now, look: .500 isn’t for everyone. Break-even feels like the worst kind of consolation prize most of the time. It’s the definition of average. It’s mediocrity. And there are few things less satisfying in sports than mediocrity.
Still: the Knicks hadn’t been at .500 after 30 games since 2017. They hadn’t been at .500 on the 17th of February since 2013. This is a season of incremental steps and fractional gains. Getting to .500 wouldn’t have commanded any dramatic conclusions — and, frankly, it would’ve elicited no celebration from any of the Knicks, either.
But it’s something. And it was in sight.
And then, in a ghastly, ghostly haze, it was not.
The Magic thumped the Knicks but good, 107-89, outscoring them by 29 points across the game’s final 37 minutes, and more than a beatdown, more than a buzzkill, it was a two-hour reminder of an essential truth about these Knicks: They don’t need to play perfect basketball every night. They don’t have to maximize every last ounce of skill on the roster.
But it’s helpful to be close to that.
“They’re a team just like us, scratching and clawing and trying to make the playoffs,” Quickley said when the carnage was complete. “Our energy wasn’t up to where Orlando’s was.”
It was hard to identify anything the Knicks did well Wednesday night, apart from Julius Randle — and even his 25 points and seven rebounds felt muted, much of that damage coming in the first quarter.
Quickley scuffled through the most difficult night of his young career, misfiring on 11 out of 12 shots. His running mate, Derrick Rose, with whom he’d established such immediate and evident chemistry, was 1-for-10. Few teams can survive two key players shooting 2-for-21; for the Knicks, that’s gangplank territory.
Even coach Tom Thibodeau, normally beyond reproach, had some head-scratching moments. On a night when the Knicks’ bench (usually a reliable strength) could barely keep out of its own way, Thibodeau kept both RJ Barrett and Elfrid Payton — who’d combined for 28 points through three quarters, the only Knicks besides Randle who reported for duty Wednesday night — fastened to the bench.
He had his reasons, of course — “We were in such a hole, I was trying to find a way out, I wanted to see where it would go once it got to 10 [with just over six minutes left in the game],” he said — and it’s not the wisest bet right now to second-guess Thibodeau, who has worked with a master stroke most nights.
It just wasn’t happening for the Knicks. They missed 15 straight field goals at one point. They surrendered 16 3-pointers to a team that generally can’t shoot straight, allowed Terrence Ross (30 points in 30 minutes off the bench) to bury them on a night when they actually did a fine job on usual Knicks killer Nikola Vucevic (8-for-24 shooting, 0-for-7 from 3). Maybe it was merely as simple as Randle’s explanation:
“We just didn’t have it,” Randle said. “For whatever reason.”
They get a few days of practice now thanks to the postponement of Saturday’s Spurs game at the Garden, and the extra practice time probably comes at a handy moment. There are a batch of winnable home games coming up. There will be other opportunities to reach the holy grail again, to hit .500, to float to sea level. It’s still a worthy goal.
Next time, it’ll be helpful to give an effort worthy of it.