Every New York Knicks fan should experience a playoff game at Madison Square Garden.
I was in the building for Game 2 on Wednesday night, up in the vaccinated section nosebleeds below and behind the Chase Bridge. I arrived super early and got into the arena at 6, an hour-and-a-half before tip-off at 7:30. You could tangibly feel the energy build as the fans funneled in and the game approached. By the time the teams were out on the floor for shoot-around, the Garden had the continuous roar of a sold-out death metal show.
We only got louder when Julius Randle received his Most Improved Player award at center court.
Fans were going around handing out pieces of paper with anti-Hawk chant suggestions on them, including the now-famous “Trae Is Balding!” cry — unleashed in a collective boom during the fourth quarter when Young was at the free-throw line.
The anti-Trae chants started early and did not relent — a sizable “F—- Trae Young” chorus even broke out during the national anthem.
It was fascinating (and miserable) to watch Trae, especially in that first half, feed off the vitriol and interact with the crowd. You sometimes wonder if players can hear or pay attention to what the fans are saying — even if it’s super loud, collective, and obvious— but Trae, like other great Garden villains such as Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan, did not provide any mystery here; he was repeatedly gesturing to shush the crowd after made baskets and slapping the floor after deep 3s.
Trae and the Hawks did quiet the crowd a little bit during the first half as the New York Knicks struggled to score nor defend the Hawks’ 3-point shooters. I’ll admit that I was a bit panicked (and sweating my ass off) as Atlanta grew their lead. There was a collective dis-ease, a sort of “here we go again” feeling that New York Knicks fans have implanted in their DNA.
I kept my eye on one person in particular during that stretch, the one man in the entire gym who appeared completely tranquil and focused, one Tom Thibodeau.
It was in these moments that I appreciated why Thibs is such a great coach — he believes in his guys no matter the score nor the situation and unlike numerous other Knick coaches in recent memory, he does not panic and his confidence is unwavering. The only time you’ll see Thibs’ really blow a gasket is with bad refereeing (and there was plenty of that last night); but, again, that speaks to his passion.
Watching him during that first half swoon gave my confidence that we could come back. I’d imagine that his players felt the same way.
The second half comeback is now just a blur of Reggie Bullock 3s, Obi Dunks, and defensive stops, all taking place in the loudest environment I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event. We were living and dying with each possession, not sitting down from about halfway through the third until the end of the game. Each Knick bucket produced a monstrous roar, and I made myself dizzy from jumping up and down in place every time.
The loudest roar of the night came after the Burks-to-Obi Alley Oop, a play that prompted “OBI! OBI! OBI!” chants and caused Mrs. Toppin to cry.
The Hawks seemed completely overwhelmed by the atmosphere and struggled to score for most of the second half. As the final horn sounded and we celebrated our first playoff victory in 8th years, Trae was furiously gesturing and promising to deliver at home in Atlanta. We shall see.
I’m sure he’ll get a friendly greeting back at the Garden next Wednesday.