Erik Spoelstra wasn’t asked about it, but he had to say something.
“It felt like the Twilight Zone out there,” the Heat coach said.
Spoelstra just left the court at Madison Square Garden, where Dwyane Wade lingered behind to bask in the adulation of the New York crowd in his final game here. And for Spo, this was still a bizarre scene that he couldn’t comprehend.
“I’m still of the old Pat Riley generation,” he said. “When it was Heat-Knicks and Van Gundy and all of them on the other side. To hear all the cheers and the ‘Let’s Go Heat,’ it just feels strange.”
Honoring Wade is one thing, but Spo is expressing an opinion from a unique perspective. You’d think an opposing coach would love that his team has the support of a crowd on the road while they’re battling for their playoff lives. But The Garden is a little more special when it feels more like a crucible than a cushion.
But the home team has 62 losses and hasn’t made the playoffs in six years. It’s a long time since they met in the playoffs in 2012, when the Knicks endured one injury after another in a series that ended in five games with Baron Davis carried off the court to a loud ovation after a gruesome knee injury in Game 4. It feels like an eternity since those battles in the late 1990s.
Right now, there are Knicks fans who made some money off this game by selling their tickets to Heat fans. And there are others who were just looking for some good basketball to watch. There wasn’t much of the latter in this game — both teams had some mind-numbing possessions — but there was Dwyane Wade. The future Hall of Famer provided some flashes (no pun intended) of nostalgia with 16 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal and a blocked shot in 27:24.
Knicks coach David Fizdale, who coached Wade with the Heat, narrated a heartfelt message to his friend that was shown on GardenVision during the first timeout. Afterward, Fizdale called Wade “one of the greatest guards to ever play the game.”
But he also said you show your respect to great players by preparing for them and competing against them as hard as you can. You show respect not by yielding the floor but by battling for every inch. The Knicks built an early lead (33-29 after the first) by driving to the basket and scoring in the paint. Once the Heat adjusted their defense, the Knicks settled for threes and went from scoring 61 points in the first half to 31 in the second half. They managed just six points in the first 11 minutes of the fourth quarter.
In other words, when the going got tough, the Knicks stayed on the perimeter. The Heat (38-38) desperately needed this game as they are in a dogfight with four other teams for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks could have had the attitude to play spoiler and take back a crowd that showed up to see Wade’s final Garden appearance.
Instead, they yielded the floor.
Wade and Udonis Haslem are the only players left on either roster who has any idea about what Heat-Knicks meant. Lance Thomas may remember from growing up a Knicks fan.
And now Wade is gone. One of the last villains — or, at least, the opposing player you loved to hate and hated to love because of his talents and the threat he posed in critical moments of games that mattered.
Wade is just like any other superstar who saw The Garden as an opportunity to show out. He respected the stage and the audience by always giving his best when he was in town.
“This is definitely one of my favorite places to perform,” he told MSG’s Rebecca Haarlow after the game. “You gotta perform when you’re here.”
Perhaps that’s why it always seems easier to come to The Garden as an opponent than to play here full-time. The demand to perform every night on this stage. Carmelo Anthony was the last to do it with any consistency, and he burned out within three seasons.
The last version of the Knicks to build up a resistance to stars strutting up and down the stage at the expense of the home team were the rugged 90’s teams that Spoelstra referenced. They were built up of tough-minded players who had no interest in yielding the floor so you can promote your brand. Sure, there were times the likes of Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Shaq and others dropped some game on them. But it was earned.
Knute Rockne once said, “At home, we’re the hosts. And I never liked the idea of being embarrassed in front of our friends.”
The Garden is the greatest stage in basketball, but, as Spoelstra was compelled to tell us, it’s a lot more fun when it’s a tough crowd that has a team to believe in.
– Speaking of veterans, Fizdale praised DeAndre Jordan before the game for how he handled a conversation they had about starting rookie Mitchell Robinson. Fizdale said he went to Jordan about the idea and Jordan replied, “Let’s see what he can do” and promised Fizdale he’d be ready when called upon.
Robinson, who was in awe of Jordan’s performance last Sunday against the Clippers, had 19 points and 21 rebounds against the Raptors on Thursday. Against the Heat, he continued to be a dynamo on defense with four blocks and three steals and he also grabbed 14 rebounds. He had just 9 points, though was 4 for 4 from the field, in 36:49.
— MSG Networks (@MSGNetworks) March 31, 2019
You have to believe Robinson will be even more effective on offense if he plays with a point guard who can not only get into the paint but who also recognizes mismatches and can make better lob passes. Robinson is already a dominant defensive presence but there’s a lot of potential for him on offense with better shooters to space the floor and a point guard who can run pick-and-roll and make accurate passes.
– Fizdale went with a big front line with Luke Kornet starting at the four next to Robinson. Kornet continues to make a case for himself as a depth center for next season because he is positionally sound on defense and he is a good shooter from three. He started 4 for 7 from three in the first half, but then was just 1 for 6 in the second half. Kornet can look no further than the Heat bench for a player to emulate. Ryan Anderson has made a solid career — and a lot of money — as a stretch big. You can argue that Kornet has the potential to be a better defender.
– On Friday, the Knicks announced that Frank Ntilikina (groin) will be shut down for the rest of the season. Ntilikina said he re-aggravated the injury during Sunday’s game against the Clippers and said it felt worse. He finishes his second season playing just 43 games due to injuries and a few DNPs, as well.
“I think I still grew a lot as a player,” he said. “It’s frustrating that I didn’t play in as many games as I wanted to, but I still got better.” Ntilikina is on the books next season for $4.8 million with a team option remaining on his rookie deal for $6.1 million in 2020-21. If the Knicks spend the offseason upgrading the talent and experience, it may actually bode well for Ntilikina, who can develop without the pressure to perform right away. Some players take longer to reach their potential and Ntilikina clearly needs more time to physically mature.
[Watch the Knicks Battle the Bulls Monday at 7 PM on MSG & MSG GO]