NEW YORK — As they’ve done at various other times this season, the New York Knicks wore their throwback uniforms (from their 1953-61 era) during what they billed “Hardwood Classics Night” at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
Following suit, the Garden played music from that period during time outs and the MSG scoreboard showed some black-and-white footage of segments called “Old-Timey Basketball Drills With The Knickerbockers.”
Yet the best blast from the past was the game itself, when the Knicks and Boston Celtics — having each recently hit rock bottom before climbing back to respectability — scrapped and fought for a full 48 minutes in an intense, sometimes chippy battle reminiscent of much better times for both franchises, when they competed with each other in the postseason.
While it was only a mid-January season meeting at about the halfway of the regular season, the Garden was alive with an electric playoff-like atmosphere which culminated with the biggest surprise of all — that despite losing its two best players, New York still found plenty of offense to outduel a bunch of second-half scoring from Boston, in a 120-114 Knicks victory that was as entertaining and thrilling as it was gutty for the home team in front of patient, success-starved fans who had been eagerly waiting to root the way they did while helping to will their team to an impressive win.
Not only did they cheer, but Knicks fans also showered the Celtics with “Boston Sucks!” chants several times down the precarious stretch as the lead began to change hands back and forth. That type of crowd reaction was in itself was the hallmark of the game being more than just another pre-All-Star break home game in the long NBA season.
Win or lose, New York basketball have always fans appreciated a good effort. It’s why they gave standing ovations on Tuesday night every time the Knicks hit the floor the way they used to (in the 1990s) to battle the Celtics for 50/50 balls.
And the crowd could sense that although it only counted as a single win, it somehow felt bigger — like perhaps the sudden rekindling of a bidding rivalry between two once-proud clubs who fell on hard times, and which are now each competing again as fierce Atlantic division rivals, each with some good young talent and better leadership, and each with much brighter futures ahead.
Much of that was on display throughout the night, especially early on, as New York answered Boston’s hot 8-for-11 shooting at the outset with even more accurate 6-of-7 shooting, to take a 16-14 lead after five minutes, and the teams exchanged the lead nine teams and were tied twice within the first 6:37.
The Knicks’ offense, in the first quarter, ran through star forward Carmelo Anthony and rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis (16 points in the period), who collectively, accounted for 28 of New York’s 36 first-quarter points as the Knicks led by nine points after the opening frame and by as much as 14 on an Anthony jumper 3:46 before halftime.
Delighting the crowd early. Porzingis made his first five shots, including three from 3-point range, while Anthony sank his first two 3s and five of his first six field goal attempts overall.
But that feeling would change in the second half after Anthony sprained his ankle when he stepped on referee Steve Anderson’s foot along the sideline, near midcourt, 1:20 before halftime. Anthony would only be able to return for the New York’s first possession of the second half, and a mere 19 seconds into the third quarter, he was done for the night, with an efficient 17 points on 10 shots, four rebounds and three assists.
Less than three minutes later, with New York’s lead whittled to just 63-59, Porzingis picked up his fourth personal foul and was relegated to the bench for the final 8:49 of the quarter, as the prior high energy was momentarily sucked out of the building.
That is, until the rest of the Knicks stepped up.
Sans Anthony and Porzingis, New York maintained the same margin, at 85-81, going into the fourth quarter, on a buzzer-beating jumper from reserve rookie guard Jerian Grant, whose career night — along with the contributions of several others — carried the Knicks (20-20) just far enough, and into a second-place Atlantic Division tie with the Celtics (19-19), just one game behind Orlando for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot, one game before New York concludes the first half of its regular season schedule.
Porzingis made a couple of key, late shots in the final period, to finish with a team-high 26 points, but he missed his last six 3-pointers and played only 4:50 in the fourth quarter, after being whistled for his fifth foul with 8:26 remaining.
Forced to sit from that point until the 4-minute mark, Porzingis fouled out for the first time in his career just 1:16 later, with the Knicks clinging to a 106-105 lead.
At that moment, New York could easily have been excused for fighting hard but coming up short.
On the contrary, the Knicks (who improved to 16-4 when leading at halftime, 17-3 when being ahead after three quarters and 15-2 when scoring at least 100 points) passed a big gut-check with several winning plays at each end of the floor.
Starting guard Arron Afflalo finished with 24 points after making seven of his final shots, following a 2-for-9 start.
Grant ended with a career-high 16 points, making all but one of his six field goal attempts (often aggressively driving into the lane), while matching a career-best with eight assists — without a turnover — in 23 minutes off the bench.
Reserve forward Derrick Williams had 15 points and a game-high (and personal season-high) 10 rebounds to record his first double-double of the season.
And starting center Robin Lopez missed only one of his seven shots while scoring 15 points.
It all added up to — given the circumstances as they unfolded with Anthony and Porzingis — arguably the Knicks’ best team win of the season, their sixth in eight games, after a four-game losing streak had dropped them to a season-worst four games under the .500 mark.
“It was a good win,” head coach Derek Fisher said. “Every guy that touched the floor helped us in some way, even if it was [only] for two or three minutes… so it was a good team effort… I think the guys are coming along.
“Sometimes guys go down, whether it’s injury or foul trouble, and you need guys to step up and make plays, and help win, and not be afraid of the moment. We had a number of guys that stood up to that test tonight.”
Echoing those sentiments, Grant said, “We have a lot of weapons, especially when guys are playing with confidence, we can go out there and play with anybody.”
Such as in the Knicks’ prior game, a narrow one-point loss in San Antonio (which is 34-6 overall, including 22-0 at home).
“Not any one guy, but everybody, collectively, we felt like we had to take it to another level… and when everybody steps it up, we can win,” Grant added.
Not only did Afflalo lead with his game, but ninth-year veteran continued to do the same by communicating with young players like Grant and Porzingis.
“I just appreciate all my teammates,” he said. “Those guys, they work so hard, and sometimes, they don’t get the credit. That’s a big time to encourage them to get the best out of them… they need to know that they’ve got a veteran there to support them.”
Afflalo was particularly impressed that the Knicks’ less heavily relied upon players produced even while Celtics like starting point guard Isaiah Thomas (game-high 34 points, team-high eight assists and two turnovers), starting forward Jae Crowder (21 points, team-high eight rebounds) and reserve forward Jared Sullinger (14 points, seven rebounds) did all they could to try to carry Boston to a win.
“I want to commend our team for fighting through that,” Afflalo said. “Sullinger was making plays, Isaiah was making plays, Crowder was making plays, but we didn’t give in. There were moments where we could have [given] in and allowed them to pull away, but we didn’t… that’s what winning teams do.”
It was his teammates’ effort which electrified the crowd, and vice versa.
“I think diving for loose balls, playing with passion, those are the things your fans can appreciate and will support,” Afflalo said. “ I thought the guys that were on the floor did that. [We] played with a lot of passion, played hard and played to win. When that type of energy is in the building, the crowd tends to feed into that.”
That type of atmosphere — which even included a sizable portion of Celtics fans cheering for their team, until they were later drowned out by a mostly Knicks sellout crowd — created the type of postseason feeling that a Knicks-Celtics game as the Garden hadn’t had in some time.
It was worlds apart from New York’s perplexing loss on the same floor to Boston two years ago, when the Celtics thrashed the Knicks by 41 points during a Sunday noon start, right after New York had won a road game in Brooklyn by 30 and a home contest against Orlando by 38, to break an early-season nine-game losing streak.
“Two tough teams,” Grant said. “They have some tough guys on their team, we have a lot of tough guys on our team, both teams are competing for playoff spots, and both teams are getting better with each year, so it definitely feels like [the start of a renewed rivalry].”
Starting point guard Jose Calderon (who has turned around his game in recent weeks, despite going scoreless on just two shots, with five assists on Tuesday night), sensed the raised energy level from Knicks fans.
“They feel it, because we’re growing as a team [and] we’re getting better,” he said.
On whether Tuesday night’s game had kickstarted the kind of hatred that used to exist between the Knicks and Celtics, Calderon said, “[It feels that way] because we’re in the same division and we’re really tight in the standings. We could see some fans for the Celtics, more than usual [tonight].”
It was one thing for the old uniforms and scoreboard flashbacks to the past to simply make it look like the old days, when better Knicks and Celtics teams clashed in much bigger games in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, a couple of times in the 1980s, when Patrick Ewing led a remarkable comeback to New York series victory in a deciding Game 5 in Boston, in 1990, and when the teams split first-round playoff series most recently, in 2011 and 2013.
But the Knicks and for that matter, the Celtics (even in a losing effort) took care of making it sound and feel like those times as well, even if it wasn’t exactly New York taking down the likes of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish or Dennis Johnson.
There’s still a long way to get back to that. But with each team significantly on the rise with young talent in the wake of New York’s franchise-worst 17-win season last year — one season after Boston’s nearly-as-bad 25-win season — the rivalry could be starting up again, with once again, exciting times possibly on the not-too-distant horizon.