The chasm between the teams isn’t always measured simply by the size of the gulf between the numbers on either side of the hyphen. You don’t need a 35-point blowout to confirm what your eyes can see. This is the basic truth of the New York professional basketball season:
The Nets are a contender for the championship.
The Knicks are a contender for the play-in round.
The final spread doesn’t have to be menacing. It wasn’t Monday night at Barclays Center. The Nets won the game, 117-112, helped to the finish line by a highly questionable traveling violation against Julius Randle in the dying seconds that replay clearly showed should’ve been a play-on. Kyrie Irving tipped the ball as he was trying to shoot a game-tying 3.
In a lot of ways, what this game showcased was the worst of the better team and the best of the lesser team. The Nets spent so much of the first three quarters making things look so easy, so effortless — and yet they couldn’t finish the Knicks off, couldn’t pull away, not until the very end of a one-possession game, not until a friendly whistle carried the day.
And the Knicks refused to walk away quietly from what could have been — maybe should have been — a one-sided thrashing, playing a crushing, suffocating defense late after being lit up early, grimly trimming the lead from 12 to three as the fourth quarter ground on.
“Our margin is small,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We have to play with great intensity for 48 minutes. You let your guard down against that team and they can put points up in a hurry.”
Said Nets coach Steve Nash: “A win is a win and we did enough to win the game. My only gripe would be we had a chance to be up 20-25 in first half. That can come back to bite you but it didn’t in the end.”
It almost did. Maybe if the whistle doesn’t blow Randle regathers himself, ties the game, the Knicks ride that into overtime, and Randle doesn’t channel Sonny Corleone at game’s end, furious at the referees. But that’s part of the narrative of these teams, too: maybe the Nets didn’t deserve the win as much as the Nets did. But that isn’t the way justice in the NBA is meted out. Talent rules the day.
“I liked how we fought.” Thibodeau said.
“I thought we could have played much better,” Nash said.
For the Knicks, this is a game to keep in the memory bank because it is a reminder that not every game against an elite team needs to be a walkover. It will be a good thing to keep in mind Tuesday night, in fact, when they play the Sixers in Philadelphia. There really is legitimacy to their grit and their guile. It really is something to be commended.
For the Nets, it is just as important to remember how easily it sometimes is for them to fall into bad habits. Nash was right: they could have ended the competitive portion of this game early. They could’ve led by 20 at the half, by 20 after three, and instead were only up 12 after both, leaving a window open.
And there will be better teams than the Knicks ahead for the Nets who will be better equipped to take advantage of that space, no matter how narrow.
“We have to learn from this,” Thibodeau said.
“We have to get better,” Nash said.
There is little doubt the Knicks will learn. There is little doubt the Nets will get better. That does define their respective ceilings, after all. The whole season has been a learning curve for the Knicks, and that won’t change as the East begins to separate into distinct neighborhoods of haves and have-nots, as they do the sweaty dirty work to qualify for a play-in spot.
And there is little doubt the Nets will get better. Even without Kevin Durant, even without Blake Griffin, they can be an extraordinary basketball laboratory night after night, James Harden throwing another triple-double onto the pile, Kyrie Irving scoring 34 points as easily as the law allows.
The game was close. The immediate aspirations are not. The Knicks look at the Nets and see what they have to become if they want to take the next step. The Nets look at the Knicks and see what they can’t allow themselves to be if they want to take their next step. The chasm is still wide even if the scoreboard was not.