This time they were on the road, in as hostile an environment as the NBA allows. This time, they were the ones missing a star. This time, it was the other team, the Celtics, who had something to prove, since they were plenty salty after getting humiliated by the Nets two nights earlier.
And it didn’t matter.
None of it mattered.
The Knicks outlasted the Celtics in double-overtime Sunday night at TD Garden. The final score was 131-129. The final seconds were a sweaty, blurry, pulsating rush, and the aftermath was as sweet a sight as there is in New York sports: the instant evacuation of the Garden, the exodus of 19,156 sons and daughters of New England, all of them red-faced and furious and asking the age-old question once asked by Butch and Sundance back in the day.
“Who are those guys?”
They are the piping-hot Knicks, who have now won nine games in a row, who swept a weekend road trip through Miami and Boston by winning a pair of white-knuckle, holy-cow-did-you-see-THAT games against the Heat and the Celtics. The fact that they did this Sunday without Jalen Brunson, their do-everything point guard?
Yeah. That probably explains Mr. & Mrs. Sully’s especially red faces and especially furious dispositions as they sprinted out of the arena for the T.
“We got some dogs on this team,” a jubilant Immanuel Quickley said.
It was Quickley who made so much of this possible, Quickley who replaced Brunson (nursing a sore foot) in the starting lineup, Quickley who played 55 minutes and scored a career-high 38 points and added seven assists, eight rebounds and four steals, Quickley who sent the game into a second overtime with a floater with 13 seconds left in OT and Quickley who scored the Knicks’ first five points in the second one, a quick lead they never relinquished.
“It was a huge performance by him,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He stepped up, made big plays, big shots, made a lot of great defense.”
It was, but in truth it was a huge performance by everyone. Julius Randle followed up his monster 43-point outburst against the Heat on Friday with 31 more Sunday. RJ Barrett had 29 points and 11 rebounds. Mitch Robinson had 13 points and 14 rebounds.
And on the last play of the game, after consistently getting burned by Boston center Al Horford who had made six 3s because Robinson was constantly helping out in the middle, he managed to sprint out toward Horford in the corner as soon as Jayson Tatum (game-high 40) whipped the ball to him.
Robinson was just enough of a distraction.
Horford’s shot was short.
Josh Hart skied to snare the rebound, the buzzer groaned, and TD Garden grew instantly silent save for the gleeful celebration of the five Knicks on the floor — Randle raising his arms, Barrett pumping his fist, Quickley sprinting to the other side of the court — and the rest of the traveling party on the bench.
All of them having the time of their lives.
“I want our team to have fun, and have joy, but I don’t want it to get lost and twisted,” said Thibodeau, always willing to temper too much rambunctiousness. “Winning is way more fun than fun is fun.”
Sunday, the Knicks had both. They spotted the Celtics a 14-point third-quarter lead then came roaring back to seize an 11-point lead in the fourth. They blew the game at the end of regulation, then redeemed themselves by taking it back at the end of overtime, and doubled down by finally closing the game out.
“I’m happy that we found a way to win,” Thibodeau said. “The Celtics have had a great season, they’re a great team, we knew we’d have to be at our best for the entire game. Every time they got down they fought back and found a way in the end.”
It was their 39th win of the season; when they hit 40, maybe as soon as Tuesday back at the Garden against Charlotte, it will be only the fourth time since 2001 that they’ve done that. They’ve won 12 of 14, a stretch that includes two wins over the Celtics, Nets and Heat, and wins over the 76ers, Jazz, Hawks and Pelicans.
“You can’t ask for more,” Quickley said, although he knows better. The Knicks are no longer a cute story. They’re a legit team, and maybe you might want to ask the legion of Celtics fans flooding Legends Way on their way home after seeing their C’s lose the season series 3-1 to New York:
“Do YOU want to see the Knicks in the playoffs?”