Maybe next year, a win like this, against a brand-name team like the Lakers, against a superstar like LeBron James, will have greater meaning.
Both franchises, headed for a sixth straight season without a playoff berth, will be active this summer in making talent upgrades to enjoy long-awaited renaissances.
And the NBA has flourished without the two biggest markets being lit in the postseason, but the question isn’t if the league can survive without them, it’s simply this: if the NBA can do so well without the Knicks and Lakers as part of the playoff showcase, how much bigger can it get with them?
Before a raucous crowd at The Garden, LeBron had the game in his hands on his favorite stage. He hasn’t lost in this building in over five years. Last season, he declared himself the “King of New York.” But in this moment, he got rooked by Mario Hezonja, who blocked a weak drive at the buzzer to clinch an improbable comeback win.
The Knicks finished the game on a 13-1 run.
“They made the plays down the stretch and won the game,” is how LeBron described it, with resignation in his voice like someone who is just waiting for the season to end.
There was no arrogance, very little confidence and not much emotion at all. None of this is typical of him, especially not in this building.
Hezonja, who hasn’t played in over a month and had been dealing with a leg contusion, suddenly stepped into the starting lineup and was designated by David Fizdale to be the LeBron Stopper.
“One of the greatest of all time. It’s a great challenge,” Hezonja said of guarding LeBron.
But while his 17-point performance and game-winning block made him the hero of the moment, he, like all of us, could tell that this wasn’t the LeBron we’ve been so often used to seeing. Despite 33 points and 8 assists, LeBron had the worst shooting quarter of his career when it mattered most in this game. He was 4 for 15 in the fourth quarter, including 11 straight misses to end the game. His last two attempts were blocked — one by DeAndre Jordan and the other by Hezonja.
The Knicks trailed by 11 points with 3:45 left in the game. A 9th straight loss seemed inevitable despite a good start — the Knicks scored 41 points in the first quarter — as LeBron hit a long jumper to give the Lakers a 122-111 lead.
The Knicks called timeout.
But the Lakers would only score a single point the rest of the game while the Knicks kept working on defense, kept running and kept rebounding. And LeBron suddenly kept missing. After Damyean Dotson hit a three to bring the Knicks within five with 1:41 to go, LeBron missed a three. At the other end, Jordan made two free throws and the Knicks deficit was down to three. Jordan then blocked LeBron’s drive against Hezonja with 44.3 seconds left and Emmanuel Mudiay pushed the ball down the court, found Dotson for a layup and the Knicks were within one.
Out of a timeout, LeBron had the ball in his hands again and missed a 22-footer and Dotson corralled the rebound with a half-minute left. For some reason, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope fouled Mudiay far from the basket with 22 seconds left. The Knicks were in the bonus and Mudiay calmly sank both free throws.
The Knicks had their first lead since the middle of the third quarter.
On the following possession, LeBron worked the clock down to five seconds and rather than set up his trademark step-back jumper for the win, he opted to drive right at Hezonja, who held his ground, put his hand on the ball and stuffed the greatest player in the world.
“Great D by Mario,” LeBron said. “That’s it.”
But Hezonja wasn’t ready to put it on his resume.
“He just missed shots,” Hezonja said. “Don’t get that twisted. If you are saying you’re the reason he’s missing shots, you’re an idiot. Pretty simple.”
– LeBron was supposed to spark that return to Showtime in Hollywood. But it’s been a reality check season for him and the Lakers, who have faltered to 11-25 since Christmas Day. For the past eight years, if you have him on your roster, you’re playing in the NBA Finals. For the first time since 2010, he won’t be there. For the first time since 2005, he won’t play beyond Game 82.
But like the Knicks, LeBron expects the Lakers to be very active in upgrading the roster around him next season. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the team’s attempt to trade for Anthony Davis and that scenario is expected to be revisited after the season. He and free agent-to-be Kyrie Irving have very publicly buried the hatchet from their breakup in Cleveland, which has many wondering if the two could be reunited in LA after this season.
LeBron was also caught on video telling another pending free agent, Kawhi Leonard, after Thursday’s game, “I’ll be in touch,” which had media outlets speculating LeBron was doing more recruiting. “There’s a lot of great free agents this summer,” LeBron said. “I’m not going to name any names, because every time I say something or our organization says something about a specific person, we get in trouble. But we have an opportunity to get better.”
– Dotson is becoming a prized pupil of the Knicks development program over the last two seasons. Dotson, a second-round pick who spent 13 games in the G-League as a rookie and worked his way into the rotation last season, is playing with great confidence since the All-Star break.
He scored 25 points on 10 of 20 shooting and is averaging 22.5 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.3 steals over the last four games. Dotson is shooting 47.3% from the field and 42.4% from three-point range in that span. In 12 games since the All-Star break, Dotson is averaging 16.7 points and shooting 42.2% from three. Before the break, he was averaging 9.3 points per game and shot 36.6% from three.
– Dennis Smith Jr. (sore back) missed a second straight game. Mudiay got the start once again and put up 28 points and 8 assists.
– Is that DeAndre Jordan or Arvydas Sabonis? Over the last three games, Jordan has recorded a total of 21 assists, which is more than he had in three different entire seasons earlier in his career. But lately Fizdale is running the offense through the veteran big man at the top of the key and we are seeing an evolution in his game.
Jordan once again flirted with a triple-double, with 15 points, 17 rebounds and 7 assists against the Lakers. Over the last three games, he’s averaging 12.6 points, 15.3 rebounds and 7 assists. Could be a useful dimension for next season, if the Knicks are able to re-sign the 30-year-old free agent.
– Mitchell Robinson (2 points, 3 rebounds) has hit a wall when it comes to production lately, as teams are starting to gameplan for his activity around the rim to stop lobs and his rebounding. He’s being hit with bodies a lot to limit his mobility in getting to loose balls and he’s getting stripped when he brings the ball down.
But he’s still racking up the blocked shots. He had two more in this game, to raise his season total to 130, which leaves him just four shy of tying the franchise record for blocks in a season by a rookie. His blocks also extended two streaks. He now has recorded a block in 27 straight games, which is one shy of the most by a Knicks rookie, held by Patrick Ewing. He has a streak of 18 straight games with at least two blocks, which is already a Knicks rookie record and is tied with Hakeem Olajuwon for the 6th longest streak by a rookie since the NBA has recorded blocked shots as an official stat. The longest streak of 2+ blocks in a game by a rookie in NBA history? That’s 45 straight games, done by Manute Bol in 1985-86.
– The Knicks may be a lottery team for six straight seasons, but they’ve owned the Lakers over this span. This is the third time in the last five years the Knicks have taken both games against the Lakers during the season. They also took sweeps in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Overall, the Knicks have won 8 of their last 10 meetings against the Lakers.
[Watch the Knicks Take On the Toronto Raptors Tonight at 7 PM on MSG & MSG GO.]