All you had to do was look around Madison Square Garden and it was obvious your ears were lying to you, had to be. On a good night, in normal times, they can squeeze 19,812 inside here, and when you give them a good reason, they can turn your eardrums to dust.
Around 17,812 of those seats were unoccupied as the final seconds bled off the clock Tuesday night. We are still a couple of full-court heaves away from complete normalcy around here, after all, even if there is the promise of reinforcements, meaning nearer to 5,000 capacity for the postseason.
Still, as Derrick Rose dribbled out the clock …
Damned if it didn’t sound like the Garden inside here. Damned if it didn’t sound the way a big spring night is supposed to sound here. Damned if the collective timbre of just under 2,000 people didn’t sound like a gathering … well, 10 times that number.
The Knicks were finishing off a 109-97 beating of the Hornets, the first half of a show-me back-to-back that will include a date with the Hawks on Wednesday.
For the first time all year, the Knicks were playing what felt like a playoff game, because, in essence, it was. There is a crowd of teams from 4-10 in the East, and the Knicks are one of them, and so are the Hornets. The teams in the top six when the music stops May 16 will avoid the play-in. It is an excellent goal.
And this was an excellent test.
“Whoever we play against is the most important game because it’s next,” said Rose, who hopped on this merry carpet ride in progress but has made certain to enjoy the journey as much as possible.
“I saw a winning mentality here,” he said. “Every team that’s playing against us knows it’s going to be a hard game, a hard-fought game, and you have to bring your best. Me seeing that from afar, I wanted to be a part of that.”
And this is what he’s a part of now: a team with a 32-27 record, a team that has won seven straight, a team that snuck past the Celtics and into fifth place with the win Tuesday night, a team that Wednesday will have the opportunity to take No. 4 away from the Hawks — both teams playing back-to-back, both teams vying for the title of biggest surprises in the NBA this year.
Tuesday, you could see all of that. You could hear all of that. The Knicks scuffled for the first 24 minutes, allowed the Hornets to nearly bury them with 69 percent shooting from beyond the 3-point line. But the Knicks wouldn’t be buried. They came back. RJ Barrett, who couldn’t buy a shot early, couldn’t miss late. His 24 points in 40 minutes included six 3s.
His improvement, by the week — sometimes by the game — remains a sight to behold.
“It’s been a lot of hard work,” Barrett said.
It mirrors the team. There was no reasonable prognosticator who saw them playing a game in what officially qualifies as late April for a top-four seed, and yet here we are. There was no way to believe that the Garden, after years of neglect, would be a place where joy and hope and genuine optimism would find a foothold.
And yet here it was: the final seconds of another home victory vanishing off the clock, fans on their feet, fans making enough noise that if you closed your eyes you could almost believe the lie. Because it sure sounded like a full house. This is what important basketball is supposed to sound like. And feel like.
“It’s important for us to not get lost,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, trying hard to temper what is becoming a staggering story in progress. “When you start thinking about down the road, about winning streaks, you can forget about Atlanta. It’s easy to get knocked off course.
“Focus and concentration are everything that gives you your intensity. We have to stay focused on what’s in front of us.”
There is little to worry about there. Rose and Julius Randle have Thibodeau’s back on the floor, won’t let their teammates daydream. Even Barrett, all of 20 years old, has an old-soul, old-school mindset that belies his birth certificate. They know the good times aren’t guaranteed. But they also know them when they see them.
Or, as was the case Tuesday night, when they hear them.