NEW YORK — When the Knicks took a four-point lead with nine seconds to go in Wednesday night’s season opener against the Boston Celtics at Madison Square Garden, it appeared the home team was on the verge of a feel-good win to start Kemba Walker‘s Knicks career.
It turned out the Knicks were, in fact, going to win the game — it just wasn’t in the way anyone could have envisioned.
After an insane final nine seconds of regulation that saw the Celtics hit two 3-pointers in the final five seconds to tie the score, plus a pair of frenetic overtimes, New York eventually emerged with a 138-134 victory, snatching a win from the jaws of what would’ve been an excruciating season-opening defeat.
“The good thing, at the end of the day is we got the win,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Getting it, though, took a lot more work for New York than it initially appeared.
The trouble started after the other former Celtic starting in the Knicks’ backcourt, Evan Fournier, got free for a layup to push New York’s lead to 114-110 with nine seconds to go, sending the partisan fans inside MSG into a celebratory frenzy in anticipation of a win.
But then Jaylen Brown, who finished with 46 points, buried a 28-foot 3-pointer to pull the Celtics to within a point. After Julius Randle hit a pair of free throws to push the Knicks’ lead back to 116-113 with 4.9 seconds to go — and with Boston not having any timeouts — the plan was for the Knicks to foul.
“We had a play where we wanted to catch Jayson [Tatum] moving on the run,” Ime Udoka, coaching his first regular-season game Wednesday for Boston, said afterward of Boston’s plan.
The plan went awry, however, after Tatum grabbed the inbounds pass, slipped and fell. Instead of grabbing him, the Knicks players froze, allowing Tatum to get up and fire a pass to a wide open Dennis Schroder in the middle of the court. With everyone then scrambling to catch up, Schroder dribbled into the frontcourt, drew Walker toward him and swung a pass to Marcus Smart, who buried the game-tying 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded, leaving the building in shocked silence and sending the game to overtime.
“I just tried to get it up and I slipped,” Tatum said. “And then I saw [Fournier] came and doubled, threw it to Dennis and he found a wide-open Smart. He knocked it down and gave us a chance.”
From there, both teams spent the next 10 minutes of game action looking like exhausted heavyweight fighters trying to make it through the final rounds of a championship bout. After the teams each scored 12 points in the first two minutes of the first overtime, they combined to miss all 10 shots they took while going scoreless during the rest of it. That included an ugly miss by Tatum after he held the ball for a final shot.
Tatum finished 7-for-30 from the field and 2-for-15 from 3-point range.
“Sometimes you’ve gotta laugh at yourself,” Tatum said of his ugly shooting performance, shaking his head. “I guess I’m good for one of those a season.
“Hopefully that’s the last one. Get it out the way. We’ve got 81 more.”
The second overtime then devolved into a true slog, with each team only scoring once over the opening three minutes. But after Tatum pushed Boston into the lead with a nifty drive and an and-one finger roll, the Knicks responded with a Fournier 3-pointer and a floater by Derrick Rose on back-to-back possessions in the final minute providing New York’s final margin of victory.
“It was crazy,” Fournier, who finished with 32 points, said with a smile. “The atmosphere, the fans, the game itself — it was fun to go to OT, but I wish we had killed that game in the first 48 minutes.
“But it was a dogfight, really, especially toward the end. I’m sure you guys could see we were both tired.”
The craziness of the ending overshadowed the original reason Wednesday night’s game was significant: It was Walker’s debut as a Knick. The Bronx native with a certified legendary New York City basketball background — between his time at Harlem’s Rice High School and his exploits at the University of Connecticut in this arena — said he couldn’t believe he was hearing his name being called during pre-game introductions.
“So much was running through my mind,” said Walker, who flashed an “X” for his home borough, The Bronx, as he came out onto the court to a raucous ovation. “Just really couldn’t believe it. Really just playing for the home team.
“I’m really a kid from the Bronx, born and raised in this city. To put that jersey on for the first time, for the real regular season, and being announced, man … it was definitely an amazing feeling.”
Walker’s performance itself was a mixed bag. He finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, three assists and four turnovers, including two ghastly ones on back-to-back possessions in the final 30 seconds of regulation that allowed Boston to begin creeping back into the game. He played 35 minutes and wound up being subbed out for Rose for the second overtime.
“I was disappointed,” Walker said when asked how he felt about his play late in regulation. “I was disappointed in myself a little bit. It was a little bit of a mental mistake on my behalf. It happens.
“I’ve done a lot of crazy, not smart things in my career. That was definitely one of them. But it happens. You’ve got to find a way to stick together. You got to find a way to come out on top, and that’s what we did.”
Walker, who was traded away by the Celtics this offseason, said he spent time with his former teammates after the game. He said it wasn’t weird playing against them in his first game as a Knick.
“Maybe if I was somewhere else it would’ve been weird,” Walker said. “But being that I’m with the home team, nah, it wasn’t weird. I just felt like everybody just kind of had my back, you know? My teammates, the city, the fans, everybody. It wasn’t weird. I have a lot of love for those guys. You could see it before the game. I have a great relationship, man.
“I just came from the locker room with those guys, talking to those guys. Those are my brothers. Those are my brothers. Over the last two years we became really close. So for me being on a different team, it’s not going to change anything.”
The feelings were mutual from the other side, as well.
“That’s my guy, man,” said Brown, whose 46 points were the most ever scored by a Celtics player in a season opener, surpassing Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Bob Cousy (35). “Can’t say enough good things about Kemba Walker. He’s just one of those guys that you like to be around, man.
“Kemba was great for me and my time in Boston. He was warm, he was accepting, he allowed me to be myself. Some guys get envious or things like that. Not Kemba Walker, man. So I’m very grateful for the time I spent and things I got to learn. It was great sharing the floor with him. I’m happy for him being in his hometown. I said hello to his family, his mom was at the game, so it was great.”
DeMar DeRozan, shorthanded Chicago Bulls hand Brooklyn Nets ‘bad, tough loss’
NEW YORK — With DeMar DeRozan drawing James Harden and Kevin Durant with him on a drive into the paint, Lonzo Ball was all alone on the right wing as he launched a 3, crouched in anticipation and then turned toward courtside fans behind him after drilling a late dagger against the Brooklyn Nets.
Down four rotation players due to health and injuries, the Chicago Bulls continued their surprising start to the season by erasing an 11-point third-quarter deficit to give the Nets a stinging 111-107 loss at Barclays Center on Saturday night.
The Bulls (16-8) have won three straight games and leave New York having beaten the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and the Nets at Barclays Center on this road trip. This is also the second time this season that the Bulls outplayed the preseason favorite to win the Eastern Conference in the fourth quarter to hand the Nets a bitter loss, clinching the season series between the two teams.
“You want to be the best, you got to beat the best,” said DeRozan, who picked the Nets apart with 13 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter. “Everybody talks about being best but you got to go out there. No matter if you are shorthanded, you want to be the best, you got to go out there and compete against the best.”
The Bulls entered the game shorthanded with Javonte Green and Coby White in health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19. With Patrick Williams (left wrist) already out, the Bulls started Alex Caruso at power forward but he was later ruled out due to a hamstring injury that was bothering him entering the game. Bulls coach Billy Donovan said it was a medical decision to pull Caruso and that he did not know how long Caruso might be sidelined.
The Nets (16-7) looked at this game as a big test for them. They were shorthanded themselves with Joe Harris (ankle) and James Johnson (shoulder) out to go along with Kyrie Irving, who is not with the team. But they were looking to settle a score after losing, 118-95, in Chicago on Nov. 8 and get a quality win over one of the top teams in the conference.
Brooklyn led 71-60 with 6:34 left in the third and appeared to be in control. But that cushion was gone by the 9:28 mark in the fourth. Durant scored nine of his 28 points in the fourth quarter but Harden struggled with his shot, missing 5-of-6 shots in the fourth. The Nets defense allowed Chicago to shoot 52.2% in the fourth quarter. Chicago also enjoyed a 27-to-9 advantage in free-throw attempts for the game.
“We just gotta go out there and play with some force and confidence, like we want to win,” Durant said. “And understand it’s a long game, and just stick with the game plan. It’s a bad, it’s a tough loss. … We didn’t take advantage of being up nine-10 points. We just let them stay in the game and we were supposed to just bury them.”
Harden, who recently admitted he is having difficulty finding balance between being more of a playmaker versus when to be a scorer with Irving not playing, shot just 5-of-21 overall before finishing with 14 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds.
“Blame this one on me,” said Harden. “I had a lot of opportunities at the rim that I didn’t convert that could have settled this game down.”
Durant said he should’ve helped Harden more by making more shots.
“That would’ve took pressure off of him,” Durant said.
At the end, the Nets watched another struggling shooter make the game’s biggest shot. After Durant cut the deficit to 107-105 with a 3-pointer, DeRozan drove and drew Harden and Durant with him in the paint. DeRozan found Ball alone on the right wing and the point guard delivered the dagger 3, just his second of the game. Ball finished 3-for-10 overall and just 2-for-7 from behind the arc.
Ball — who had eight points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three blocks against the Nets — also missed 8-of-10 3-point shots in Thursday’s win over the Knicks. But the Bulls continue to develop chemistry and trust in one another as they moved to within half a game of the Nets for the lead in the East.
“It says a lot about our team,” DeRozan said of the wins against the Knicks and Nets. “How resilient. How we approach challenges. We don’t shy away from them. We accept them.
“… It is difficult to win in this league, especially coming into two hostile environments on the road, playing against two teams and the best team in our conference, to withstand the blow that we took from them throughout the whole game, to buckle down in the fourth quarter and pull out a victory.”
Chicago Bulls’ Javonte Green tests positive for COVID-19, joins Coby White in protocols
Charlotte had four players enter health and safety protocols on Saturday.
Bulls coach Billy Donovan said before his team faced the Nets in Brooklyn Saturday night that Green had driven back to Chicago on Friday, and was feeling all right. He added that Chicago expects to continue daily testing in the wake of multiple positive tests, and that he anticipates the league continuing to tighten its protocols as time goes by.
“I think that’s happening,” Donovan said of the protocols getting stricter. “I don’t think there’s any question that’s happening. I think there’s going to be, my guess would be, stricter policies than there have been this year. To your point, I think Thanksgiving and you’re dealing with Christmas and then New Year’s … people are going to be around family. I think that the way it’s moving right now is it’s getting a little more stricter.
“Certainly for us right now it’s a lot stricter because we’ve got two players who are positive.”
Donovan also praised his players for how they’ve handled the twists and turns of the situation over the past several days.
“Well, we’re not the only ones dealing with it,” Donovan said, “but the only guys I can respond to our our guys, and our guys have been class acts, totally professional. I think they’ve handled whatever has come their way. We’re not the only team that’s dealing with it, that’s had to deal with it.
“I think there was obviously some hope and some optimism we kind of passed this going into the season. That certainly hasn’t happened. But our guys have handled it, and the whole thing about you have to control what you can control. There’s a lot of inconveniences, things can get frustrating and annoying and you worry about are you infected or are you healthy, and you’ve got a couple teammates and guys on the team who have tested positive, so I’m sure some of that stuff goes through those guys’ minds.”
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo to miss second game with calf soreness
It’s the second straight game Antetokounmpo has been sidelined because of the injury, which kept him out of the second half of a back-to-back on Thursday in Toronto. Budenholzer said then he was hopeful this would be just a short-term issue.
“We’ll just take it day by day,” Budenholzer said Saturday. “See how it goes”
The Bucks’ roster has been hampered by injuries and illnesses since the start of the season, but they had won eight of their past nine games entering Saturday to storm back into the mix at the top of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
In 21 games this season, Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.6 points and 11.8 rebounds while collecting a career-high 6.0 assists and 1.7 blocks.
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