This is as close to a perfect night as you can conjure in this jigsaw puzzle season the Knicks are crafting for themselves. Oh, sure, they won the game, and handily, because the opponent, the Hawks, reside in the same low-rent, Baltic Avenue/Mediterranean Avenue district with which the Knicks are so familiar.
The 143 points the Knicks dropped on the Hawks is the most they’ve scored since 1980 — when even Vince Carter was just 3 years old. If someone would’ve subbed a red, white and blue ball sometime in the second quarter, nobody would’ve much complained. This one was straight out of the ABA archives. Nice and easy on the eyes. Defense optional.
Easier was watching what the kids did, because that is the everything and the only thing for the Knicks in this season. And there was one sequence, late, the game well in hand, when they delivered a five-second sequence that maybe you could freeze in your mind’s eye, easily accessible for other nights when things don’t look quite so pleasing.
There were 2 ½ minutes left in the game. The Knicks, up at least 20 for every second of the second half, were up 22. RJ Barrett had the ball in his hands. Barrett is the keystone of whatever the Knicks will become, the foundational piece, 19 years old, a rookie in every way: splendid one night, sketchy the next; unbelievable one minute, unwatchable the next.
This was already his best night as a pro. He would finish with 27 points and six rebounds. He made 10 of his 13 shots from the floor, five of his eight free throws. He looked as comfortable as he has looked all year, and as a nice bonus he’d twice had brief chats with Carter, entering the home stretch of his brilliant career, a Tar Heel encouraging a Blue Devil in an end-of-days display of sportsmanship.
“You’re going to be very good in this league,” Carolina told Duke.
Barrett passed the ball to Kevin Knox, who had also rousted himself on this night against the user-friendly Hawks defense: 17 points, three 3s, three steals. He’s 20. Sometimes it feels like he’s been here all 20 years. He can frustrate. Not now. Now, he spotted Mitchell Robinson cutting to the basket.
And Robinson — 22 points, 13 rebounds, two blocked shots, 21 years old — flushed the alley-oop, and that was more than enough to coax 18,268 people to their feet. It was one brief moment in a long, long season. It doesn’t erase the 10-game losing streak that sent the season into an uncontrollable tailspin. It doesn’t move the Knicks’ (7-21) winning percentage any higher than .250, or the same pace as the ’62 Mets.
But it is exactly the kind of moment the Knicks need to specialize in across the next few months. It is precisely the kind of game the Knicks need to duplicate as often as they can. They don’t get the Hawks every night — next up, in fact, are the Heat and then the Bucks after that, cold buckets of ice water for Christmas — but that’s not really the point.
If the Knicks are ever going to rise from the dust, it will be Barrett, Knox and Robinson who will nudge them there. Marcus Morris and Julius Randle are the cornerstones now, but Morris, for sure, will be a future draft pick by the time the Knicks are playing meaningful basketball games again. The kids will determine where they go.
And when the kids play like they did Tuesday night, you are officially allowed to project a little bit. Barrett is the most advanced, and he has hinted at games like this (while still periodically enduring growing-pains games like the ones he had in Portland and Denver last week). Knox is the puzzle, because it’s hard right now to know how high his ceiling is.
“You really do have to look at his young he is and how he’s continuing to mature physically,” said Knicks coach Mike Miller, now 3-3 for his six games as an NBA coach, who’s prime assignment, for as long as he has the job, is to keep the kids going in this direction. “Tonight Kevin didn’t have a great first half but came back and showed maturity by having a great second half.”
And Robinson is the wild card. He is the freak. When he stays on the floor, he invariably does something to impress. His “wow” factor is off the charts.
“So much energy and force,” Miller marveled.
They all showed that, all three, and that’s what pleased Barrett most of all: “Getting a win when everyone contributes, when everyone is in double figures and everyone is playing well together … that’s what it’s all about.”
Sounds good, kid. Looked even better.
For more on the Knicks, listen to the latest episode of the “Big Apple Buckets” podcast: