In a vibrant Madison Square Garden Saturday night, there seemed to be more at stake than the outcome of a regular season NBA game. The outcome was important, of course. The Nuggets are trying to keep up with a ferocious and wide open western conference, and the Knicks are trying to stay afloat for a coach whose seat is hot enough to melt the snow atop the famous arena right now. But as the game crept into the final minutes of the fourth quarter it began to feel as if two opposing philosophies of basketball were being played out on the court to determine which was right. This is ridiculous and not actually true. It was one game. Still, in the heat of watching it live online (thanks a lot MSG and Time Warner), as my wife rolled her eyes and switched on Barefoot Contessa, as I held my breath, twitched, and shamefully put up middle fingers every time the camera showed Bill Walker celebrating on the bench (it’s just…something about him), every possession became a referendum on The Trade. I say again, this is ridiculous and not actually true. Regardless of which team wins a championship this year, next year, or in future years, the Nuggets have clearly won the trade, judging from what has happened since it went down. They are clearly the better team, deeper, and playing better basketball. Still, when the Melo Iso kept working down the stretch, even on a double team, the thought prodded and poked. You need a superstar. You need a superstar. I was trapped in the game, unable to see the long view.
The end of the 4th: Gallo is having a monster game, and is fouled with 7 seconds left, up one. He’s at the line with a chance to ice the game against the team that shipped him to a place he refers to as “the provinces” for a more talented player. He has redemption in his hands. He misses the first free throw, but makes the second. Nuggets 98, Knicks 96. Melo receives the inbound pass at the right elbow, and Gallo closes out hard, knocking Melo off balance. He dribbles back, outside the 3 point line and quickly tries to drive left, but Gallo is too quick. He slides over, blocking access to the lane as Corey Brewer leaves his man to help on Melo. Melo has not once looked up to see if there is an open man. I realize this possession is the epitome of Knick basketball so far this season, one superstar dribbling around trying to find a shot. I am elated. With Brewer contesting the shot, Melo spins right and fades, the ball is in the air and perfect. Nuggets 98, Knicks 98.
After being largely silent the whole game, focused, I would say, as if my concentration could actually influence player movement, I couldn’t take it anymore. To keep myself from vomiting, I shouted out, “But…he doesn’t deserve to win this game!” I had visions of him making the game winner in overtime, the media drenching him with praise. I leaped forward in time and saw a champagne soaked D’Antoni awkwardly wearing a 2012 NBA Champions hat and talking about this very game being the turning point in their season (which it could ultimately end up being, even in defeat. Maybe this is the tipping point for Melo. Maybe his former team beating him lights a fire, makes him team-first, and changes the course of their season. Maybe such a change would inspire Amare, make him play better. Maybe Baron Davis is coming back at the perfect time and the Knicks will go on a crazy run deep into the playoffs. I have irrational fears).
OT: Melo comes off a pick from Chandler. Nene switches onto Melo, then, after Melo passes it to Landry in the corner, Nene inexplicably and nonchalantly returns to his man in the paint, leaving Melo wide open. Landry immediately passes it back to Melo. The ball is in the air and perfect. 103-100, Knicks. You need a star. I turn away from my computer screen and look at the TV. A man clips a purple flower mid-stem and puts it in a bag for Ina Garten. Life is over with 2:32 left in OT. A few possessions later, Al “See, You Did the Right Thing in Not Amnestying Me” Harrington, who had another fantastic night, senses a moment. He finds himself with the ball on the wing and Toney Douglas guarding him. As he backs him down, with 5 seconds on the shot clock, Chandler comes over to double and knocks the ball free. Al, Toney, and Chandler fall over in a clump of arms, none of which are able to grab the ball that is headed for the scorer’s table. It bounces once, just inbounds enough for Andre Miller, who has run from the opposite side of the floor, to grab it and launch something in-between a set shot and a jump shot from 31 feet away just before the shot clock buzzes. The ball is in the air and perfect. 103-103. Miller walks back toward the erupted Nuggets bench along the long, green, digital advertisement for Sprite on the scorer’s table. I am rejuvenated and making funny faces in disbelief. Melo hits right back. You need a superstar. Al misses, I lose my shit. Nene grabs the offensive board, I lose my shit. Andre Miller misses one of his 3 point set shots, and I lose my shit again. Melo with the board. Knicks up 2, with the ball, in overtime, 30 seconds left. I can feel the dagger. Melo and D’Antoni embrace in a future champagne shower. Melo faces up on Al near the 3 point line and rises up. The ball is in the air and perfect, only this time, it clangs off the back of the rim. Order is restored to the universe. Chandler fouls Nene on the rebound with 9 seconds left. Nene, 0-4 from the line tonight, sinks both free throws. I never doubted him for a second.
That’s when it hit me. This team was playing its 4th road game in 5 nights (its 2nd overtime game of the trip) after getting in at 4 a.m. that morning because of a snowstorm without its two shooting guards. This would be an unprecedented streak for the franchise. All the talk about stars and super-teams and which team is better or was better or would be better disintegrated. I stopped thinking about all the problems with this team (saved for a future post). The night was about this Nuggets team, and these players, in this moment, battling and doing amazing things. And I felt waves of pride and appreciation, at once sure that they would win the game, and sure that it didn’t matter. What mattered was their effort, their guts, and their resolve. Then, I thought, man oh man, they really deserve three days off and a game against the Kings.