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That Loving (and Frenetic) Knicks Playoff Feeling Is Back

It’s been eight years since New York was in the playoffs, and even longer since the Garden was truly rocking. But the spirit of the glory days was back in Game 1, complete with new villains and plenty of tabloid fodder.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

This past Sunday, a couple of hours before the New York Knicks hosted their first playoff game in eight seasons, reporters asked head coach Tom Thibodeau to reminisce about the loudest he’d ever heard a Madison Square Garden crowd get over the years. The subject matter was typical—we love a good “World’s Most Famous Arena” reference, don’t we, folks?—but the question was also topical. The Knicks had earned the no. 4 seed and first-round home-court advantage. The Garden was set to open its doors to more than 15,000 ticket holders for Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks, representing the biggest NBA crowd since COVID-19 paused the league in March of 2020. Between all that and Knicks fans’ longtime thirst for a return to playoff basketball, the subject of decibel levels was newsworthy.

Thibodeau identified a moment of pandemonium from back when he was a Knicks assistant: Larry Johnson recovered a tipped inbounds pass against the Indiana Pacers, fought through contact to drain a long shot with less than six seconds left on the clock, then converted the four-point play to seal Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals by one point while both Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing looked on from the sideline. It was a beautiful memory, and also a faraway one, the way so many beautiful Knicks memories are.

That cherished game took place more than two decades ago, in June of 1999, when New York was in the midst of a 14-season playoff run and was hogging the headlines and hugging guys’ legs. Since ’99, the Knicks have cycled through 14 head coaches and made it past the first round of the postseason only twice. (Even Ewing himself can barely make it past Garden security these days.) Thibodeau worked for four other franchises before he returned to New York in 2020.

Knicks fans like me who were scarcely out of braces when LJ won that loud game are now considered by marketers to be “geriatric millennials.” And Knicks youngins, some of whom weren’t even born yet when LJ hit that classic shot way back when, now represent some of the team’s highest and best hopes for a return to that old era’s dominance. Or, perhaps more accurately—given the way Sunday night’s game ended, with an excruciating, entertaining two-point Knicks loss to Atlanta—to that old era’s memorable relevance, at least.

In the second quarter of Sunday night’s game, the beloved and smiley rookie Immanuel Quickley, age 21, sank a floater and later nailed a long pull-up 3 as the Garden absolutely erupted around him. After the half it was sophomore RJ Barrett, not yet of legal drinking age, who dunked on Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic and caused frenzy anew. Barrett would later call it “a special moment, something that I’ll always remember.” And in a post-practice press conference on Monday, 23-year-old Knicks rookie Obi Toppin, who grew up in Brooklyn, said that the MSG crowd had been so stoked on Sunday night that he and his teammates “felt the floor shaking.”

Watching the game on TV thousands of miles away, I didn’t have access to the feeling of the floorboards, but I couldn’t help but marvel at the specificity of that old—like, old—familiar Garden sound. There was that telltale pipe organ, played by Ray Castoldi since 1989, and the recognizable voice of longtime PA guy Mike Walczewski, whose intonations of “Derek Harper” and “Carmelo Anthony” are forever seared into my brain. There was the gracious and loquacious MSG Network duo of Mike Breen and Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who have been calling games together since the early ’90s. (Last week, Breen was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame.)

There was the sweaty, swaggering harmony of the (noticeably overwhelmingly male) voices throughout the stands in the three-quarters-full arena. Tracy Morgan and Jon Stewart were in attendance, as were all these happy fellows. They warbled in delight when Toppin finished a dunk or when Nerlens Noel rejected John Collins. (For all the gloom and doom that scorned Knicks lovers have endured over the years, I find the fan base to be inherently enthusiastic, and almost oddly so; this is a people that reacted to a 17-17 record earlier this season as if it were the Larry O’Brien Trophy.) They occasionally murmured in alarm, when Julius Randle, the team’s stalwart MVP presence all season long, struggled to find his groove throughout Game 1.

And they were lured by the siren song of disgust, choosing to taunt the Knicks’ finest and feistiest opponent throughout the game: 22-year-old Atlanta Hawk point guard Trae Young. This was both unwise and, in some ways, a glorious return to noted playoff form.

You can’t quite control which players become energized by an arena’s buzz. If Larry Johnson’s four-point play in 1999 represents one of the most memorable high points of Knicks playoff history, Reggie Miller’s eight points in 8.9 seconds in May of 1995 is an iconic low. The Pacers guard’s single-handed takeover of Game 1 in the second round of the playoffs that season—and the double-handed choking gesture he directed at omnipresent New York superfan Spike Lee in its aftermath—made Miller a forever nemesis at MSG and cemented him in Knicks lore.

During Game 1 at the Garden on Sunday night, Atlanta’s Young channeled a great deal of that retro troll-king energy. He scored 32 points; he physically shushed an MSG crowd that had chanted expletives at him early in the night; and he won the game by driving successfully to the right in the waning seconds as Clyde, on the Knicks broadcast, yelled in vain for a cold-off-the-bench Frank Ntilikina to force Young left at all costs.

“As I hit the floater it just felt like everyone got quiet,” Young smirked after the game. “I was waiting for them ‘F-you’ chants again.” On Tuesday, New York mayor Bill de Blasio donned a Knicks hat during his public livestream and tried to clap back. “Stop hunting for fouls, Trae,” Hizzoner said. “That hawk’s not going to fly in New York City.”

I hated Sunday night, all of it: I hated the game’s outcome and everyone’s subsequent overreaction. I hated the mayor’s whole bit. I hated Dan Patrick interviewing Miller about Young. I hated the lack of specifics on the extent of Noel’s injury going forward, and I hated the sensible knowledge that Alec Burks can’t always go off for 27 points. I hated the sudden whiplash I felt listening to WFAN callers “just ask questions” about dear Randle’s playoff mettle.

I hated that I thought to myself, “Well, they say a series doesn’t really begin until a team loses at home, so I guess we’ve begun, huh?” I hated the way I went into the series having convinced myself that New York was simply in a “playing with house money” situation, only to be confronted with the emotional reality of my own paper hands. And I hated the mohawk on Danilo Gallinari’s head, which just felt too on the nose, like a personal attack: I get it, that charming 2010-11 New York roster that was once my muse is now old and distant enough to be a sullen tween actively plotting my downfall.

But also, I loved Sunday night, all of it. I loved the long-lost feeling of watching meaningful, tense Knicks basketball games in late May, the sun absolutely refusing to set outside. (I know, the playoffs started a month “late” this year; details, details.) I loved thinking about all of the characters out there mouthing off or silently praying, in their own places and own ways, as the team let them down and lifted them up all at once.

I loved my Twitter timeline, even the grim jokes about Elfrid Payton’s minutes. I loved having to go outside every now and again to clear my mind, usually of the subject of Elfrid Payton’s minutes. I loved seeking out Knicks postmortem podcasts, with their blend of grump and hope. I loved seeing, on Tuesday evening, that Randle had officially earned the NBA’s Most Improved Player honors this season. I love marking the passage of time not by the seven days of this week but by the best-of-seven schedule of this Knicks-Hawks series: The next unit of time that matters is the tipoff of Game 2.

Thibodeau may still remember the sound of Johnson’s four-point play at MSG all those years ago, but my strongest memory of that moment will always be how it looked. There was this one replay angle that—to anyone who is younger than “geriatric millennial” years old—would seem unexceptional but that was, at the time, a genuine visual thrill. It was a low, wide vantage of MSG rather than the traditional NBA Jam left-to-right view, and as Johnson hit his shot you could see what felt like every Knicks fan jammed into the building all at once, from the round rafters all the way down to the court, everyone jumping in ecstatic, instinctive unison.

For much of this past Sunday night, that’s a little bit like how the Knicks-Hawks game felt, too: a community in motion, a moveable feast, at least until everything came to a screeching halt. In the grand scheme of things, no matter what happens in Game 2, it’s unlikely that this will be a season that culminates with a championship banner being raised to the MSG roof. (Even LJ couldn’t do that.) But the franchise’s bar has been raised. The Garden’s doors have been flung open. The Knicks are back, and so is the bickering, and sometimes it’s nice when things are so loud around you that you can no longer really hear yourself think.