A Lot Of Basketball Left

The Knicks picked up their first win in their second game of the season, against a team they had no business beating. This doesn't have to be the start of something big to mean something.
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The bad things were bad, and they lasted all season. Carmelo Anthony did his herculean best, but Tyson Chandler broke his fibula and Amar’e Stoudemire lumbered and ached on the ghosts of Amar’e Stoudemire’s knees, Andrea Bargnani was Andrea Bargnani, and JR Smith was not the endearing version of JR Smith. It was not good.

There was a brief and unfortunate bloom of hope toward the end of the season during which it became theoretically possible for the team to squeak into the playoffs. That, and the resulting “we’re on the right track” mindset it would have no doubt engendered, and the potential last-minute pardon for the dour and overmatched Mike Woodson, thankfully never came to pass. That team finished 37-45, and out of the playoffs. They earned it.

The teardown that came with the offseason made sense, and provided the first reason for optimism in some time. James Dolan, the risible plutocrat-bluesman owner, paid Phil Jackson a fortune to oversee a turnaround and vowed to stay out of the way; Jackson brought in Derek Fisher to replace Mike Woodson, and dealt Chandler and problematic point guard Raymond Felton to Dallas for a decent haul and a modicum of financial relief. Carmelo re-upped, eschewing suitors like Chicago and the Lakers.

Then Fisher and Jackson mentioned that, no big deal, the Knicks would be running the triangle offense this year. The triangle is elegant and effective and very difficult; installing it all the way takes an amount of continuity and patience to figure out that few teams -- let alone those owned by James Dolan, playing in New York City, and cursed with that ineffable Knicks-ness -- have been willing to take on. What followed were some very discouraging reports from training camp, including JR Smith tugging at his collar and suggesting that it would take, uh, quite some time for the Knicks to learn just how in the hell to play this thing. The Knicks were blown out in their first game and traveled to Cleveland for their next.

Already the calculus was different, the focus shifted even from girding for the worst to beginning the search for appropriately attainable, sufficiently enjoyable moral victories. A good game by the bench. Melo putting in forty. Amar’e’s knees forestalling complete structural failure just a little bit longer. Little flashes of force and promise from Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway, Jr. It won’t be all bad.

The pain would be painful, and it was coming, but this was all the more reason to lose yourself in the few good nights. It’ll be Gram and Emmylou singing “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning.” It’ll require an extra beer or two per game in the near term, but maybe it’ll even be good for you, in the long run. The suffering will make future success all the more enjoyable. Sure, sure. You’ve heard this before.

***

In Cleveland, the introductions were splashy, LeBron did the chalk thing, Kevin Love arrived in a turtleneck and blazer that made him look like a guest on The Dick Cavett show, but looked damn near perfect in a Cavs uniform. Cleveland led by seven after one quarter, and could have been leading by more.

But then this epoch-opening Cavs win, cruising downhill on time’s longboard, hit a pebble and went sprawling. The ball bounced this way and that, and we were all flying through the air towards an uncertain conclusion and suddenly Quincy Acy was grabbing boards for the Knicks, who were now sharing the ball, moving it high and low, sharing the ball very well in fact. New York took a lead. They were down by two at the half, and preparations had begun for a brief parade celebrating one of what promised to be one of the season’s better moral victories, and one of a larger number of losses. This sort of preparation seemed the sensible thing.

But it didn’t happen that way. The only thing LeBron James did consistently was hand over the ball. The Knicks, for their part, didn’t really appear to be running the triangle, but whatever they were doing just kept working. Fisher prowled the sidelines pointing his fingers at spots that I suppose corresponded to marks on a whiteboard, if not quite to things his team was actually doing. But they scored, and he seemed to say, “Okay, that! Do that!”

New York pulled ahead, then Cleveland reeled them in a bit, but Melo hit a late baseline jumper over James that served as a knife to the heart. Not so much to LeBron -- he’ll be fine, I promise -- or even of the game, but of the preordained idea we’d all had about this Homecoming Event.

The Knicks won by five, 95-90. Anthony had scored 25. The bench put in 41. When the final buzzer sounded Quicken Loans Arena was a mausoleum. The Cavs were a birthday candle that had refused to light. A five-point win over a contender boasting the best player alive on a nationally televised Thursday night game. This was no mere moral victory, although it was that as well. It was a real victory.

***

There are times when even the worst love makes us feel and maybe even look like our best selves. When a string of events or the regard of another allows us to shake doubt and navigate the world with something approximating confidence, even verve. It’s the sort of feeling that can make amazing things happen, even if some of those things are later regrettable.

Experience teaches us that there won’t be many nights like this. It’s only realistic to state that, and if it’s difficult to remember it is also important to keep in mind. But by god, it’s an addictive feeling, the happy surprise of a win from nowhere. Your blood runs richer, your back stands straighter, your eyes burn brighter.

There’s no question Cleveland’s nerves played a role in the game, just as there’s little sense in believing that things won’t find their proper balance. LeBron won’t turn over the ball that much in the future. He won’t shoot that poorly. On the other end of things, the Knicks’ true character will be asserted, the triangle lessons will be learned in public and painfully, and the losses will pile up. The universe will get its bearings. There is a lot of basketball left.

But surely there’s no crime in reveling in these stray bits of happiness, these found moments, these queer instances when suddenly, even if only for one night, this foolish love feels sustainable, and maybe even right. In this sense, too, there is a lot of basketball left. When we say that, it’s mostly as a way of waving a game off, but it might also be said in celebration.


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the Ashes in the Morning.” It’ll require an extra beer or two per game in the near term, but maybe it’ll even be good for you, in the long run. The suffering will make future success all the more enjoyable. Sure, sure. You’ve heard this before.
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They were down by two at the half, and preparations had begun for a brief parade celebrating one of what promised to be one of the season’s better moral victories, and one of a larger number of losses. This sort of preparation seemed the sensible thing.
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