For the first time in more than eight years — 2,923 days, to be exact — the New York Knicks were able to celebrate a playoff win. And, like the last one, they were able to do it at Madison Square Garden.
With Wednesday night’s 101-92 win over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of their first-round series, the Knicks were able to send 15,000 screaming fans home happy after evening the series at 1-1.
It was the Knicks’ first postseason victory since May 16, 2013, when they beat the Indiana Pacers 85-75 in Game 5 of the conference semifinals, a series they ultimately lost in six games.
Wednesday night’s victory sent Knicks fans pouring out of the building onto Seventh Avenue while cheering for Julius Randle, Obi Toppin, Reggie Bullock and more. They continued to disparage Hawks guard Trae Young’s name and even chanted about wanting the Brooklyn Nets.
But before they can get that wish — something that can’t happen until the Eastern Conference finals — there’s more work to do against the Hawks.
The Knicks fell behind by as many as 15 in the first half, causing Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau to make some lineup changes to start the third quarter. Elfrid Payton and Nerlens Noel sat in favor of Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, two longtime Thibodeau stalwarts.
The changes paid off.
“We started out slowly, and then our bench played in and played pretty good,” Thibodeau said. “Then we closed the second quarter slowly. So I just wanted to change it up. We wanted to do something different. That’s why you have a bench. Those guys came in, and they played great. I thought they played great in the first half, so I wanted to give us a different look, and it was a plus.”
Rose and Gibson are the two senior members of this year’s Knicks, in age and in playoff experience. Heading into the playoffs, Rose and Gibson combined for 112 career playoff appearances, whereas the rest of the roster combined for 37.
Thibodeau said that experience helped give his team a boost in the second half.
“We have some guys that haven’t been in playoff games, and they’ll get better as we go,” Thibodeau said. “There’s only one way to get experience, and that’s you gotta get it. So each game I think they’ll get better. I think you learn from each game. You learn from each situation. But I think the fact that those guys have been in big games before is a big plus for our team.”
In the first half, the Knicks’ bench outscored the starters 30-14, with Rose leading the charge. He finished with a team-high 26 points in 39 minutes. That came after he played 38 minutes in Game 1.
Despite coming off the bench in 32 of 35 games with the Knicks in the regular season, Rose said he has prepared himself to handle these types of minutes.
“I’ve been working my butt off for a couple years now prepping myself and getting my body right,” Rose said. “I take care of myself pretty good. I don’t want to say too much about that because I don’t want to jinx myself. But I’m good.”
Rose was also happy with his play in Game 2 after a Game 1 performance that left him less than thrilled.
“I’m just happy that I’m feeling good. We got the win and I played a lot differently than I did in the first game,” Rose said. “I was making sure I got into the ball whenever he passed half court. And just tried to play with urgency. I didn’t see that last game and I was disappointed in myself.”
A strong start by Rose and the bench helped the Knicks get over another slow start from Randle, who was named the league’s Most Improved Player on Tuesday. Randle went 0-for-6 in the first half while scoring just two points.
But he got his game going in the third quarter with 11 points; he finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
“We came out in the third quarter and knew we couldn’t lose two on our home court,” Randle said. “Our intensity level just went to another level, defensively first. Derrick, Reggie and those guys did a good job getting into the ball. We were able to get stops and get out and play a little bit faster. We were playing with better pace on the offensive end.”
The Knicks’ defense did step up in the second half, holding the Hawks to just 28% shooting, their worst mark in any half this season.
Atlanta was especially cold going against Randle. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Hawks went 0-of-15 against Randle as the primary defender. It’s the first time since data tracking started in the 2013-14 playoffs that a team has gone 0-of-15 against a single player.
Gibson, who was born in Brooklyn, is playing under Thibodeau for the third time in his career after stops in Chicago and Minnesota. He said he remembers during his rookie season and sophomore year with the Bulls talking with Thibodeau after practice about what a possible playoff matchup against the Knicks would look like with the Garden rocking again.
While the two of them are on different teams, it’s still something he’s not taking for granted.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Gibson said. “But every day I come in here, it’s surreal. You gotta pinch yourself because you’re playing in the Garden.
“It’s one of the toughest places to play, but it’s one of the [most beautiful] places to play when you’re right. Just trying to do some special things here, and right now we’re laying the groundwork for it. It’s an awesome feeling.”