MIAMI — The Knicks can feel satisfaction about the season later. There’s a whole summer for that. There are four months between now and training camp, and at some point there will be distance and space from this final game, this final chapter, and the Knicks can maybe toast a season in which so much good happened.
But that’s for then.
For now, this will aggravate most of the Knicks, agitate them, because it should aggravate and agitate most of them, the ones who played in a do-or-die game Friday night at Kaseya Center and turned in the kind of performances that keep you up at night.
Pity, too. If even one other Knick had played with the attitude — and aptitude — of Jalen Brunson, there would be a basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. There would have been at least 48 more minutes of basketball season, and as long as you still have season left you still have hope left.
There will be no game Monday night. The Heat eked out a 96-92 win, sweeping all three in Miami and advancing to the Eastern Conference finals, four games to two. The Garden will stay dark Monday night, and for the rest of the summer. No more hockey. No more hoops.
No more hope.
“The difference between winning and losing a playoff game,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, maybe 20 minutes after the final buzzer was joined by the joyous growl of 19,737 Heat fans, “is very, very small.”
Brunson, no surprise, was the one Knick who honored the gravity of the moment, who one final time allowed Knicks fans to dream of bigger things and better days. He scored 41 points, made 14 of his 22 shots, and to the end refused to let the Heat, and the season, wander too far from his grasp.
But he had no help. He had less than that. The other four starters shot the ball 32 times Friday night. They missed 27 of those shots. RJ Barrett finished 1-for-10. Julius Randle was 3-for-14. Quentin Grimes was 1-for-6. If one of them — just one — would have matched Brunson, we would be talking about some kind of fun Monday night.
“I was terrible tonight,” Barrett said. “I was very disappointed in how I played today. It’s a lot right now. You fight for something, you want something so bad.”
This will gnaw at them, and it should. This will annoy them and you’d better believe that’s fair, because there were millions of Knicks fans back home living and dying with every misfire and every missed opportunity, yelping at their TV. These Knicks helped remind their long-suffering constituents just how much fun meaningful games in May can be. There will be time enough to celebrate that. And time enough now to digest a sobering reality.
Could have been more.
Should have been more.
“We wanted more,” Barrett said.
“We expected more,” Randle said.
“In the end,” Thibodeau said, “there’ll only be one team standing.”
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That wasn’t going to be the Knicks, not yet, not as they’re presently built, but they sure had a legit chance to be one of the last four standing. It doesn’t matter if that would’ve seemed like a hallucination back in September; in May, it was real. It was possible.
“There were a lot of good moments and a lot of growth,” Brunson said, and he was right. But he knew how close the Knicks were to leaping ahead of schedule. He certainly could see Monday night beckoning when the Knicks built a 14-point first-quarter lead, and could still see a final gleam in the final 30 seconds, the ball in his hands, the Knicks somehow down by just two, somehow with one final shot …
Only the shot never came. Brunson tried to force a pass. The Heat stole it. It was about as cruel an irony as the night could have presented, but Brunson, of course, owned it.
“I have to give us a chance,” Brunson said. “That turnover is unacceptable.”
What he didn’t say, would never say, no matter how true it is, was that he alone had given the Knicks a chance. That was true when they were still learning who they were as a team. It was true as he built an instant scrapbook across his first 11 playoff games as a Knick that stands with anyone who has worn the uniform across their first 11 postseason games.
He wasn’t going to applaud that. None of them was much in the mood for applause. If the notion of getting this far in September was fanciful it turned out to be real. They had a shot, still has a shot in the final minute of the final game.
“We have to use what we’ve learned,” Thibodeau said, “and move forward.”
In the weeks to come, they will. They will see the possibilities ahead, and maybe even stop to commemorate what they did this year. Just not now. Just not yet. They wanted more.
“This,” Brunson said, “will sting.”