It seems beside the point to pick the Knicks apart after the game that just happened. The offense had some sloppy stretches and the shot selection wasn’t great — though the shot-making mostly was — and consistent rim protection remains an issue (to which we say: more Aldrich). We’re not dwelling on that stuff. We’ve got 80 more games to overanalyze and I’m sure we will. That’s not what this is about.
There is a duality to the nature of each regular season NBA game that can be very easy to overlook during the January “@MIL’s” and March “vs.ORL’s” whose like gives an NBA schedule its critical mass. One game is a component of a six-month whole, a chapter in a broader narrative, a tally in a column whose final sum determines whether you go onward to glory or just back home. We never forget this. But the other piece of the story is the one that makes so many of the very best nights, like this one, worth our while.
Because even as one game is a piece of a puzzle, it’s also a completed puzzle unto itself.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers drew the absolute maximum amount of attention to this latter element of their season opener’s nature. Downtown Cleveland was a block party and celebrities were on hand and commercials were filmed and inspiring team videos were compiled. This is all absolutely within the rights of the city and the franchise and the man. Notwithstanding the parallels between this team’s pre-emptive self-congratulation and the selfsame city’s vilification of James for similar (though gaudier, less sentimental) behavior upon his arrival in South Beach, the approach can be understood, expected, condoned.
But there was, of course, another team in Cleveland tonight, a team that has undertaken a difficult transition and that got absolutely shellacked on the occasion of its own home opener. Put simply: the Knicks were an easy target. And LeBron’s Thursday morning claim that this was “one of the biggest sporting events…ever” juxtaposed against the ‘Bockers’ general existential disarray gave the impression — intentionally haughty or not — that tonight’s contest was to be more coronation than competition.
Well, whatever great many things may be said about the 2014-15 New York Knicks, let this one thing be added to them: they were not here to be extras in the climactic scene of LeBron James’ Grand Redemption.
LeBron and the Cavs will have many, many great nights this season. They will win games that stand on their own as singular paragons of beautiful, lethal offense. They will rock the Q and energize their city. They will comprise new and glorious chapters of James’ already remarkable story. And, collectively, these nights will almost surely carry the Cavaliers into a postseason that could see them ease the expectant, six-decade-long angst of a city’s sports faithful. And it could be truly beautiful.
The Knicks, just as surely, will not do these things. They’ll win some games and occasionally impress and there will be nights — hopefully many — like tonight that are a lot of fun. But their ceiling is fundamentally lower, their ambitions more humble, their potential more limited. And so it would be easy to look at a night like tonight through cynical eyes and say “well, that was fun, but it’s the second night of the season and there are long months ahead and the Cavs will have the last laugh.”
But that’s only part of the story. When the Knicks got bucket after bucket every time the Cavs closed within striking distance, when Carmelo Anthony buried a dagger in LeBron’s mug, when the entire crunch-time unit swarmed and scurried and smothered their way to that breathtaking, ultimately backbreaking final defensive possession, the Knicks did more than stretch their record to 1-1. They prevailed in a clash that mattered on its own merits, that the Cavs and their uberstar had built up to something in between the Miracle on Ice and the Toon Squad’s clash with the Monstars, only way more redundantly sponsored. They emerged victorious on a night that, no matter how many titles LeBron and his Cavs may win, the Cleveland faithful will never be able to say was the coronation that they had fancied it to be.
The Cavs wake up the Cavs tomorrow. The Knicks wake up the Knicks. But on one night of eighty-two, a rebuilding team reminded us that though they might not pile up enough victories to take us where we want to go, they will give us moments of genuine joy and inspiration on an otherwise weary road. And those moments are to be cherished because, in the final analysis, they’re the reason we stick around.
The 2014-15 Knicks can only be who they are, can only rise to the occasions that fate lays before them. Tonight, the occasion was LeBron James’ homecoming.
Well, welcome home.