Knicks offer a promising glimpse into what they can be

For one night, the people who filled Madison Square Garden could stay a few seconds after the last buzzer and enjoy what they had seen. It’s always one of the great moments at the Garden after Knicks games, after Rangers games: those few stolen moments, when the game is won, when your throat hurts, when the drive home can wait.

The garden’s staunchest basketball commuters haven’t had enough of those moments this year.

So you would be happy about that. The Bulls had all but a thin spot clipped from a late lead, and so often this year, at least at home, that means surrender for the Knicks. Not this time. Not this game. Alec Burks hit a huge shot. Julius Randle made a couple of free throws. The Knicks, who had not won four straight games all season, would win their fourth straight game by a score of 109-104.

“Just make winning plays,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, and on the 26th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s double-nickel game, the Knicks would find a way to give the Bulls an 11th loss in their last 15 games. The Bulls are headed for the playoffs and the Knicks are about to reach their expiration date.

For one night it was hard to tell which was which.

For one night at Madison Square Garden, it was easy to suppress disbelief and contemplate what the Knicks could be. There was RJ Barrett, who continued to demand the ball and continued to develop a fearlessness that will only grow as he does, scoring 28 points and helping the Knicks extend their lead in the third quarter.

RJ Barrett (left) and Immanuel Quickley smile during the Knicks' win over the Bulls.
RJ Barrett (left) and Immanuel Quickley smile during the Knicks’ win over the Bulls.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

“This guy,” Mitch Robinson said with a big smile, “is fun!”

There was Obi Toppin, who was great in 20 minutes off the bench, scoring 17 points and bringing with him the kind of raw athleticism that Knicks teams have too often lacked in recent years. Thibodeau even extended Toppin’s minutes in the fourth quarter, keeping him in the game rather than bringing Randle back until minutes were left.

Knicks fans in particular want to see that now. At this point, it’s really not about punishing Randle (who looked like he was still injured for most of the night despite having 13 rebounds) or just handing the kids the car keys.

They want to know that the children can play. Barrett was a revelation in March – and he’s now officially averaging 20 points per game. Toppin’s case was more interesting because he was so often buried behind Randle and because Thibodeau was slow to fully integrate him into his circle of trust.

Beating a playoff-caliber team and doing it with the support of two young cornerstones — not to mention a good eight-point night with four assists from Immanuel Quickley — is a good, full night for the 19,812 who filled each Space.

“You can’t replicate the pace of the game in training,” said Thibodeau. “Why wouldn’t you use the game to develop your players?”

Mitchell Robinsin (left) hugs Obi Toppin.
Mitchell Robinsin (left) hugs Obi Toppin.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

There are many Knicks fans who have been asking themselves the same question over the past few weeks as the Knicks season has become less about the present and more about the future. And it’s a sticky subject for Thibodeau, who is focused on simply finding a way to win as many games as possible and saving the big picture for later.

“When you play against all these young players, gain valuable experience, you don’t get eliminated until you’re eliminated,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to stop on our team. I don’t believe in the other stuff.”

The other stuff, the stuff that sacrifices victory in the name of something else, that’s never going to be part of Thibodeau’s creed, for better or for worse. For now, the Knicks will compromise. The kids are playing well and the Knicks are playing well for most of the season. Does that bode well for the future?

If you’re a Knicks fan, there’s really only one way to root. Knicks offer a promising glimpse into what they can be


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