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There was a moment in the middle of the summer of 1969 when the Mets looked they were merely going to be a temporary annoyance to the Cubs, when they first tried to make a move. They had a dramatic comeback at Shea one day. Tom Seaver threw 8 ¹/₃ perfect innings at Chicago the next night.
The third game, though, the Mets kicked the ball around a bunch, struck out a lot, got creamed by the Cubbies, and afterward someone asked Leo Durocher, the Cubs’ manager, “Do you think those was the real Cubs?”
“I think,” Leo the Lip replied, “that those are the real Mets.”
The Knicks received a Big Gulp-sized cup of real Thursday night, as they re-entered the basketball season after a week’s pause. The Bucks ransacked them, 134-101, at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum in a game, truly, that wasn’t nearly that close. It was an annihilation of the highest order, and it was sweet slice of revenge for the Bucks.
Back on Dec. 27, the Knicks had beaten the Bucks at Madison Square Garden, 130-110. It was one of those scores that crawl across the bottom of television screens from coast to coast and looks like a typo. The Knicks, expected to be dreadful all year, were already 0-2. The Bucks have been the regular-season class of the East the past two years. Didn’t matter. The Knicks trucked the Bucks.
So it was a little payback. And it begs the question:
Were these the real Bucks?
Or were these the real Knicks?
“You shouldn’t give up everything, and that’s what we were doing,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said about 20 minutes after the buzzer mercifully put a stop to the carnage, barely able to camouflage his contempt. “You can’t [give max effort] for stretches of the game, you have to do it from start to finish. We have to learn from it.”
This was the first dose of ice-cold reality that was sure to accompany the second half of this season, in which the Knicks have exceeded most reasonable expectations. That first Bucks game, it turns out, was an aberration only in the quality of the opponent, not the consistency of the Knicks’ play across the season’s first 37 games.
Yes, the Knicks could still get good and hammered some nights against good teams, but they mostly took care of business against the weaker clubs, they stalked .500 for a while, then climbed over at 19-18 at the All-Star break. That, and they played hard, and played defense, and played together, and generated a favorable buzz night after night.
Good times, those first 37 games.
But Game No. 38 provided an essential truth that was apparent even as they put the finishing touches on that agreeable, satisfying first half: The Knicks will no longer be able to rely on sneak attacks, on being overlooked, on hoping to catch teams napping and peeking ahead. That’s the immediate by-product of a winning record.
Back in the day, Pat Riley had a couple of phrases to describe the kind of unexpected rise the Knicks made from the dust through January and February. The first was “innocent climb”: acknowledging low expectations, refusing to accept them, committing to exceeding them by doing simple tasks that previously seemed beyond reach.
The second was “core covenant,” which he described thusly: “A set of principles and values which are unchangeable and which define the way team members view the world.”
Mostly, that’s been enough for the Knicks, turning in a string of professional efforts where once there were so few. They could do this in the anonymity of scorched-earth expectation. It was easier then. Now they have an All-Star, Julius Randle, though he played his worst game of the year Thursday night. Now they have a lively new face in Immanuel Quickley, and improved players up and down the roster who, mostly, have fit well together.
No sneaking up on the league anymore.
So now we see if the Knicks have another gear, another phase. They have these four tough games to start the second half — at Oklahoma City next, then a back-to-back against the Nets and 76ers. They are not viewed as an automatic night off for anyone anymore, even if Thursday proved they are still capable of delivering one when they lose their way.
Who are the real Knicks? We think we know. We’ll know more soon enough.
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