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Immanuel Quickley gathered himself, and as he did you could feel an entire building take in a deep gulp of air. The Knicks had spent the third quarter of this game at Madison Square Garden looking like they were trying out for the Washington Generals, the Milwaukee Bucks all but whistling “Sweet Georgia Brown” in their ears all the way to a 70-46 lead.

There had been boos then — but not the kind we’ve heard here before. That’s how bad they’d been. The Garden couldn’t even muster the energy to let the Knicks really have it.

The people had energy now. The Knicks, inexplicably, were only down three, and Quickley had an opening, and he fired. And inevitably, impossibly, the ball splashed clean. It was 89-89. It was a 43-19 surge, most of it by the second unit. The Garden exhaled. It was bedlam.

And maybe this was the rare game for which the locals would’ve settled for a tie, signed up for a draw. The Knicks had made their push. They’d electrified a dead building. And that was all they had. A sharpshooter out of Notre Dame named Pat Connaughton drilled a few 3s. The Bucks made a few stops. They won the game, 112-100.

“We just couldn’t get over the hump,” Quickley said.

Ambivalence reigned at the Garden.

The comeback was nice. But the comeback was also camouflage. Tom Thibodeau certainly wasn’t fooled by what he’d seen. The second unit had tried to carry the day but the starting five was totally, troublingly overmatched. The starting backcourt, Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, finished 2-for-12. Every starter’s plus-minus was between -15 (Mitchell Robinson) and -28 (R.J. Barrett).

A number of the Knicks’ starters sit and watch as the reserves’ rally fell short.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Sometimes plus/minus is an empty stat. Not this time.

Asked how long it takes starters to get acclimated with one another, Thibodeau pulled no punches: “You know what they say — when it’s 10 games you say it takes 20. When it’s 20, you say 30. When it’s 30 you say it’s 40, and before you know it the season’s over. It’s a bunch of bull—t.”

And there’s your back page.

“It sucks, man,” said Derrick Rose, one of the reserves who tried to rescue the night, who scored 22 points and had seven assists in 30 minutes off the bench. “We have to come out with better urgency.”

Neither man seemed remotely impressed by the Knicks’ comeback, and that’s a good thing. They shouldn’t be. The Knicks aren’t broken, not at 7-5 after 12 games, but their engine is sputtering. They’ve lost four straight at the Garden, and that’s a red flag for any team in any league. The Bucks may be the defending champs but they’re missing two-fifths of their starting five. It shouldn’t have been this bad of an eyesore.

“We’ve got to figure it out,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve got to do better. You can’t pick and choose what you’re going to be good at — defense, rebounding, that has to be consistent every night. You have to count on that.”

You can’t guarantee a special year in the season’s first two months, but you can sure make the grind ahead more difficult for yourself. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Knicks took a similar path last year, too, because of the way they cruised home at the end of the regular season.

Immanuel Quickley and the Knicks bench tried to rally the team to victory.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

But after 12 games a year ago they were 5-7, and they were in the middle of a five-game losing streak that would grow into a bleak 3-8 stretch. They were still finding themselves then, as they are finding themselves now. They snapped out of it then because they were able to discover defense, and because Julius Randle blossomed into their North Star, and everything else followed from there.

Thibodeau also coached them up. Way up. He needs to do that again.

“We’ve got to do better,” he said.

Right now, they all look a lot more comfortable on the road than they do at the Garden — and who saw that coming? — so for now perhaps “better” can begin Friday in Charlotte, against the Hornets, who snapped a five-game losing streak by surprising the Grizzlies in Memphis on Wednesday night.

The Knicks are an intriguing team, blessed with an abundance of heart, and all of that was on display Wednesday night as they threw a second scare into the Bucks in the space of five days. But they can also be a frustrating team, burdened by some nagging flaws on both ends of the floor.

And that was on full display Wednesday night, too. It’s 12 games. There is time. But to paraphrase a wise man: if you aren’t careful 12 becomes 20 pretty quick. Thirty becomes 40. And before you know it …

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