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Garden would have been ‘rocking’ for this Knicks’ win


It didn’t take much imagination to summon what those final two minutes of the third quarter would have felt like, sounded like, looked like, been like. If you remember what Madison Square Garden becomes when the Knicks aren’t just playing well but the fans there believe they have a stake in them playing well …

Yeah. You know. You remember. Intellectually, you knew that the Garden was empty Wednesday night, but as the Knicks turned 73-68 down into 78-75 up, as they polished off a 10-2 run that felt like it was pulled out of the ’90s archive, you could almost hear the pleas raining down from the cheap seats, all the way to courtside.

“DEEEEE- FENSE! DEEEEE- FENSE!”

As Kevin Knox blocked a shot, as Austin Rivers made a steal, as RJ Barrett slammed one home to punctuate it all with 8.1 seconds left in the quarter, you could summon the swarming, swirling, echoing din that would try to chase the Jazz off the court, all the way to the bus. These moments at the Garden, the best moments, you swear that you can see the momentum swing for the home team.

Austin Rivers and RJ Barrett celebrate after the Knicks' 112-100 win over the Jazz at an empty Madison Square Garden.
Austin Rivers and RJ Barrett celebrate after the Knicks’ 112-100 win over the Jazz at an empty Madison Square Garden.
NBAE via Getty Images

“It’s so unfortunate we can’t have our fans be a part of this,” Julius Randle would say later on, after the Knicks had drilled Utah, 112-100 — outscoring the Jazz by 30 points after spotting them a 52-34 lead late in the second quarter.

Randle would have given the customers something to get good and hoarse about, turning in what is becoming his routine nightly stat line: 30 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, a plus-25 rating. Later, of course, it would be Rivers, who has become a fourth-quarter phenom, who scored 14 straight points to help turn a 96-96 tie into a 110-100 lead, knocking down four straight 3s.

By then, the Garden would’ve felt like it was about to collapse on its foundation. You get that a couple of times a year when you get a team like this one, a team that captures the faithful’s attention the way this one has across these first eight games. Watching the Knicks bench go crazy — Immanuel Quickley and Barrett happily watching, and cheering, in their warm-ups — hinted at what it would’ve been like.

“I know the Garden would be rocking,” Randle said. “That’s what we all signed up for.”

What Knicks fans have signed up for — what they’ve yearned for — is a team that looks so much like this one. Every night arrives something else to enjoy. The past two games the Knicks fell into big holes — 15 at Atlanta on Monday, 18 against the Jazz on Wednesday — and both times they not only figured out how to turn a blowout into a nail-biter, they figured out how to win both games.

“The NBA is a long game,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You can make up ground quickly. No lead is safe and no deficit is impossible to overcome.”

Said Rivers: “Guys had a sense of urgency. They started talking to each other, saying, ‘Let’s hunt them down point by point.’ We knew we didn’t need a home run, let’s just play basketball, and then everyone started having fun, competing, one thing led to another and then it was a ballgame again.”

It was a ballgame again, and then it was a stick-and-move fourth quarter, the Jazz trying to keep their legs on the second half of a back-to-back (after getting smoked in Brooklyn on Tuesday night), the Knicks hoping their own legs would survive the eight-man rotation that early-season injuries have forced.

And that’s the amazing thing about this team: You could almost understand it if, this early in a season, the players leaned on enthusiastic, pleading crowds to get them through. But as much as you might want to imagine all of that as a fan, the players’ truth is this: It’s like playing in an open gym back in high school, nobody watching except each other and a few scattered folks cutting through the gym from the cafeteria to the bio lab.

You know what you’re missing.

But they know what they’re missing, too.

“I keep trying to imagine it,” said Rivers, who finished with 23 points in 32 minutes. “I can imagine what it was like when I used to play against them. The fans here have so much energy, I can’t wait. It’ll happen. Hopefully, down the line, we get people back here. This is the best place to play basketball and everyone knows it.”

He shook his head.

“Those lights coming down, the dark stands …

“There’s nothing like that.”

Yeah. You know. You remember.

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