Hoping to pay homage to their long history, the New York Knicks made history in the way no team wants to do.
Playing at home on the 50th anniversary of their first game at the current Madison Square Garden, and in the home debut of newly acquired point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, the Knicks (23-36) — who haven’t won since Jan. 30 — were finally playing well again in celebration of when basketball began in their current home.
However, they were only prepared to do that for the first half before blowing one of their biggest leads in franchise history. Instead of honoring its past with a blowout win, New York allowed the Washington Wizards (33-24) to rally from a 27-point, late-second half deficit to a 118-113 win at the Garden on Tuesday night.
Behind starting small forward Tim Hardaway Jr.’s stellar first half, the Knicks were in control before everything quickly fell apart during a 39-15 third quarter in favor of the Wizards.
With 32 points (by the 2:56 mark of the second quarter) on the strength of a near-perfect 12-of-13 start (including 5-for-5 from 3-point range), Hardaway Jr. seemed certain to eclipse his career-high 38 points he scored in a home win over Toronto on Nov. 22. He was also on pace to break the current Garden record of 62 points scored by ex-Knick star Carmelo Anthony three years earlier.
Anthony had 37 points at halftime in that game, which is all that Hardaway Jr. was ultimately able to reach after finishing 2-for-11 (including a 2-for-10 second half) as Washington keyed on the previously badly slumping shooter, who with 17 first-quarter points, had already matched his scoring output in any of his prior 11 games.
“It was like coaching two different teams tonight,” winning coach Scott Brooks said. “I prefer the second half team. In the second half, we showed some toughness and competed, and finally realized that Hardaway was the hot player.”
Although 24 of guard Bradley Beal’s team-high 36 points (on 14 of 22 shooting) came in the second half, it was Beal’s defense on Hardaway which Brooks credited the most.
“Hardaway scored five points in the second half and those five were early in the third quarter,” Brooks noted. “The rest of the game, Bradley held him scoreless.”
Head coach Jeff Hornacek added, “That happens a lot in the NBA game. Teams will [force] someone else to beat [them] in the second half.
“Tim got us off to a great start. I was glad to see him get that confidence back… but I think [his teammates] thought it was easy. [They were thinking], ‘Tim’s making all these shots,’ but there’s still 48 minutes in a game. [The Wizards] really clamped down every time Tim came off [a screen]… they put two guys [on him] and did a much better job defensively in that second half on everybody.”
Agreeing with his coach, Hardaway said, “[The Wizards] did a good job of when I was coming off screens and their bigs were jamming the passing lanes, and every time I caught the ball, I’d have two guys on me. It was tough… it sucks to let this one [get away], but kudos to them. They did a hell of a job… I couldn’t get a clean look [in the second half].”
Scoring all but two points as New York ran off 15 straight, to build a 68-41 lead with 2:56 left in the opening half, Hardaway helped the Knicks (who were up 72-51 at halftime) to their highest scoring output in a half this season.
Yet all that did was set New York up for a familiar result. Heading into the All-Star break with a season-high eighth straight loss, the Knicks — who have also lost advantages of 21, 22 and 23 points this season — tied the 2012-13 Cleveland Cavaliers for most blown leads of at least 20 points in a season over the past 20 years.
While New York — which blew a 28-point lead in a Nov. 1987 double-overtime loss to Boston — narrowly missed blowing its largest lead in franchise history, the Knicks had the dubious distinction of coughing up the eighth-highest lead in the NBA in the past 20 years.
It was far from the best way to honor the team that won the franchise’s first game at the current Garden (114-102, over the San Diego Rockets, on Feb. 14, 1968) in front of television analyst and Hall of Famer Walt Frazier, who in that contest, scored the Knicks’ first points in their present home.
It’s small consolation, but at least New York shouldn’t feel alone.
Moments before they Knicks lost, a couple of hours away, the Philadelphia 76ers rallied at home from 24 points down to beat the Miami Heat for the 21st comeback of at least 20 points, the most in an NBA season in 20 years. Minutes later, Washington made it 22.
Given his own past experience with being on Washington’s side of things, it would have figured that Hornacek would’ve known how to help New York avoid the embarrassment of losing such a big lead.
After all, Hornacek knows first-hand about achieving the highly unlikely when trailing by a huge margin. As an NBA player, he scored 29 points to help his team pull off the biggest comeback in NBA history, when the Utah Jazz overcame a 36-point deficit to beat the Denver Nuggets at home, 107-103, on Nov. 27, 1996.
But the Knicks never matched the Wizards’ intensity after halftime.
“It was a tale of two halves,” Hornacek said. “It’s happened several times this year, coming out in the third quarter, [not] understanding the importance of the first three or four minutes of the second half. It’s something that’s been a problem [for us this season].
“The first half, teams kind of just play, and then the second half, they gear it up, and if you can’t gear it up to another level, then you’re gonna get jumped, and that’s what happened.”
Hardaway added, “That’s what’s happened to us all year in the third quarter. We’ll come out thinking we’ve got the game won and a team will put a little run together, and then it’s too late.
“We’re not San Antonio, we’re not Boston, we’re not those veteran guys… [like in] Cleveland. We’re not those teams that could just turn it on at any given moment. We’re not built that way right now.”
Indeed, when you’re a team like the Knicks (particularly without your best player, All-Star forward Kristpas Porzingis, who is out for the rest of the season with an ACL injury), nothing can be taken for granted, especially with the way today’s NBA teams can quickly erase large deficits with the help of 3-pointers.
“This game now, with the 3-point shot, it doesn’t take long,” Hornacek said, alluding to the Wizards — who made four of five 3s in the third quarter despite going 2-for-12 from 3-point range in the first half and 1-for-5 from that distance in the final period — cutting a 22-point hole to just four points in a little over six minutes during the third quarter.
A Beal 3-pointer made it a 45-15 Washington run and gave the Wizards their first lead of the second half, 86-83, with 3:08 left in the quarter.
After the game was tied on four different occasions in the fourth quarter — the last time, at 101-101, with 7:12 remaining — Washington used a 10-3 spurt to lead, 111-104.
New York closed with four points, but a steal and fast break dunk by Beal put the Wizards ahead, 116-110, before two free throws by Beal extended that margin to eight points with 23 seconds left.
Rather than being more active, moving without the ball, Hardaway, who often stood on the perimeter, watching as his teammates inexplicably (despite his explosive first half) stopped looking for him during after halftime, said, “In the second half, I’ve got to be more of a guy that’s looking to get his, just demanding [the ball] a little bit more and being a little bit more aggressive.”
That would’ve only been the start of several things the Knicks could’ve done better to avoid the humiliation of letting what seemed to be a likely win get away.
Sitting 8½ games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 23 games left in the regular season, a loss (which increased New York’s odds at securing a better draft pick) is actually better for the Knicks during the what will likely end as the team’s fifth straight losing season and 14th in the past 17 years.
Still, not being remembered for blowing one of the biggest leads in NBA history would’ve been a much better tribute to the first Knick game in the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Historical Notes on Madison Square Garden:
- The current Madison Square Garden (Garden IV) came after three other MSGs…
– Garden I (1879-1890)
– Garden II (1890 – 1925)
– Garden III (1925-1968)
- Garden IV opened Feb. 11, 1968, three days before tbe Knicks’ first game in the arena.
- Garden IV is the last of the NBA and NHL arenas to not be named after a corporate sponsor.
- The current Garden became the fourth arena to span at least 50 years from its first NBA game to its most recent one.
- The game was the 2,026th regular season NBA contest at the current Garden. It’s the only NBA venue to host at least 2,000 NBA games.
- The 51st consecutive season at the current Garden marks the longest such streak in NBA history (beating the 49 straight seasons at the Boston Garden, from 1946-47 through 1994-95).
- An NBA-record 2,754 players have appeared in an NBA game at the current Garden. That number beats the number of players who have played at Golden State’s Oracle Arena (2,753) by just one and it also accounts for more than half the players in NBA history.
- The Knicks’ first game at the current Garden wasn’t the first basketball game there because the Knicks-Rockets game on Feb. 14, 1968 was the second game of a doubleheader that night. In the first game of the doubleheader, eventual Knicks legend Dave DeBusschere scored the first basket in the current Garden, for the Detroit Pistons, in a 118-96 loss to the Boston Celtics.