In the past three nights, I’ve watched two of my favorite teams lose in gut-wrenching fashion. Hosting Philadelphia on Sunday night, the 7-5 Giants coupled a career game from their quarterback with a rejunvenated rushing attack but couldn’t overcome an awful defensive effort and lost a crucial divisional matchup by a touchdown. Two nights later, in Charlotte, the 8-15 Knicks held a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter and a six-point advantage with under 4 minutes to play. Like the Giants, however, the Knicks were unable to get big defensive stops and this, combined with a complete offensive meltdown in the waning minutes, doomed them to a 94-87 defeat.
Two seven-point losses: one by the defending #1 seed in the NFC playoffs, one by the defending #8 pick in the NBA draft. So why did the second one surprise me more?
There aren’t a ton of positives for the Knicks to take away from this game. They were beaten, in the end, by Raymond Felton, a surprisingly (in a bad way) ordinary point guard on a surprisingly (in a good way) ordinary team. Down the stretch, the Knicks were unable to a keep a quick point guard out of the paint or to sustain consistent ball movement on the offensive end. They were sloppy with the ball (to the tune of 21 turnovers) and overmatched on the glass (to the tune of a minus-7 rebound margin). The play that looked to really kill the Knicks’ spirits – a reckless charging foul on Wilson Chandler that led to the tying Bobcat possession – seemed, like the symptoms extolled in the previous two sentences, all too familiar.
But as much as I should have seen this collapse coming, as much as I know to trust a large sample of data (nearly a decade) over a small sample (less than a month), I was shocked by the Knicks failure. At 74-64, they seemed completely in control of the game. When Jared Jeffries drained a corner three to run the score to 80-74 and then threw home a dunk to make it 85-79 with 3:57 to play, I was certain they had weathered the best run the Bobcats had to offer. Even at 85-82, I truly believed they’d find a way to hold on, until Chandler’s charge finally awoke the inner pessimist that the Knicks have done so well to nurture these many years. Felton got to the rim twice for layups, Stephen Jackson got three the old-fashioned way, Felton drained two clinchers from the stripe, and the Knicks were done. Beaten, like the Giants, by a touchdown.
And it hurt, but not the way being a Knicks fan usually hurts. It didn’t hurt because they seemed hopeless, it didn’t hurt because their coach had given it away, and it didn’t hurt because the Knicks were just another stepping stone on the way to a great season for some team that played in another city. It hurt because the Knicks should have won. I think they are better than the Bobcats, I think they are more balanced than the Bobcats, and I go to bed tonight thinking that a game got away that shouldn’t have gotten away. Maybe even a game that will come back to haunt them at the end of the season. It’s been a long time since a Knicks loss hurt for that reason.
So there’s your silver lining. The 2009 Knicks lost a game they should have won, a game it felt like they really needed to win, which means, by definition, that there are teams that this year’s Knicks should beat, games they might just regret losing. Constant ineptitude can breed frustration, but it takes expectations to deliver real pain.