Knicks suddenly facing a long summer

The Knicks' pleasantly surprising season ended sooner than any of their fans wanted.

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Slowly, the reality of the moment began to sink in, tearing at the faith of the 16,512 people who’d gathered here hopeful for a basketball respite, if not a full-on resurrection. Slowly the season began leaking away bit by bit, piece by piece, minute by minute.

At last, there was genuine quiet at Madison Square Garden. At last, the flock fled for the exits, headed for the subway platforms, headed for the summer.

Summer’s here, and the time is right for sighing in the streets.

“Hopefully, we take this and use it as motivation for the work we have to do all summer long, for what we need to do next year,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau would say when it was over, when the Hawks were done ushering the Knicks out of the playoffs with one more decisive bit of dominance, this one a 103-89 schooling that ended this series in five games and ended this season quicker than anyone in New York was prepared for.

“Trial and error is a big part of learning,” Thibodeau said

One more time, the Knicks were unable to summon the magic of the 72-game regular season, when every time they needed to find a four-leaf clover to stave off disaster they found one. It is a credit to their permanent record that the Knicks competed as hard as they did in the four months leading up to this postseason. It’s why they were here in the first place. It’s why they inspired such belief, and hope.

Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, who were such key contributors during the regular season, struggled mightily in the playoffs.
NBAE via Getty Images

And, ultimately, why Wednesday was so bittersweet. One more time, fourth time in five games, the Hawks took control of the game’s narrative and refused to let it go. One more time Trae Young was brilliant, and his wingmen kept making shot after shot, and the Hawks’ defense crippled the Knicks’ offense.

You kept thinking: maybe a tidy 8-2 run can turn things around.

But once the Hawks seized the game there was nothing close to that. The lead just kept growing. A couple of times, early in the fourth, the Knicks shaved the lead to single digits, and there was a spasm of hope. And yet, before the Garden faithful could even clear its collective throat and start a roar, the lead was back to 11, back to 13, back to 16.

That kind of night. That kind of series.

“We have something to build on for the future right here,” Julius Randle would say.

But the words tumbled out with great difficulty for Randle, who will have to live with the residue of this series all summer, all next season. The Knicks probably wouldn’t have had enough even if Randle had been the equal to his regular-season self; the Hawks are that talented, and unlike all three games they played (and dropped) to the Knicks during the regular season they were at full strength.

But you have to believe — have to know — that the series would, at the least, have looked different. It would’ve felt like less of a mismatch. A year ago, stung by a disappointing regular season, fueled with ambition, Randle attacked his offseason in Dallas with a ferocity that paid dividends all across the season.

“A man utterly possessed,” is the way his basketball trainer, Tyler Relph, described it during the winter.

You have to believe these five games will serve as Randle’s gasoline this time.

“It’s tough to process that right now,” Randle said.

There will be a lot of that the next few days and weeks — among the Knicks, among their fans, among all of the dormant basketball spirits that growled back to life this year. Unlike the Knicks’ most recent playoff disappointments — unlike 2001, when a long era was ending, unlike 2013, when a brief window of prosperity was closing — there is a tangible sense that this is the development of something, not a denouement.

“This team laid a foundation for the future, to get the Knicks back on track,” said RJ Barrett, who had his own up-and-down playoff debut. “Shoot, I’m 20. I’m hoping to be here for a long time. This was a really good experience.”

Said Derrick Rose — clearly hobbled in Game 5, perhaps the extra minutes of the past few weeks finally presenting him with a bill: “Who wouldn’t want to play in New York? Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?”

That question, of course, will be the central nervous system of this offseason. It will occupy and obsess the minds and imaginations of every Knicks fan, as soon as the hangover of this series, the fog of frustration, fades.

“Guys gave us everything they had,” Thibodeau said. “They were a joy to be together every day.”

A new day beckons. Another step awaits. Summer’s here, quicker than anyone was prepared for.

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Mike Vaccaro

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