NEW YORK — Last season, after a seemingly unending stretch of mediocrity, the Knicks had a surprising year that recaptured that imagination of this city that has been waiting for them. So Wednesday night’s season-opener against the Celtics had an unusual amount of buzz, and both teams put a jolt into a rivalry that appears to have been renewed.
In the end, the Knicks overcame a frenetic Boston rally at the end of regulation and escaped with a 138-134 double-overtime win that had fans dancing in the aisles as the final buzzer sounded. Players from both teams appeared exhausted as they walked off the court, but the Knicks were smiling and the Celtics were not.
“Tough one to give away, especially when you worked so hard to get back in it,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “But it’s only the first game.”
The night had the usual dashes of opening-night sloppiness, and that created just enough unpredictability and chaos to turn this game on its head time and again.
There were double-digit comebacks by both teams. There was Boston’s surge from a six-point deficit in the final 30 seconds of regulation, when a Marcus Smart buzzer-beating 3-pointer sent the game to overtime. There was Jayson Tatum’s airball at the end of the first overtime, and Brown’s missed dunk during the second.
Brown, however, can be forgiven for that rare lapse that came on legs that were never supposed to be this heavy. He had been sidelined for two weeks after contracting COVID-19 and said Wednesday morning he was unsure if he would even play in this game.
Udoka, whose coaching debut almost became an afterthought on this wild night, said Brown’s playing time would be limited. Then Brown erupted for a career-high 46 points in 46 minutes, including a 20-point first quarter and 8 of 14 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc. He said that by the end of the night, he could feel his heart pounding through his chest.
“I don’t know how I did it,” Brown said. “I spent a lot of time in quarantine, thinking about when I was going to get back out there, just imagining, seeing the game, visualizing. And some shots fell tonight.”
Although Brown was spectacular, his fellow All-Star Tatum was not. During the first half Tatum missed one wide open 3-pointer after another, most of them thudding long off the back rim. Typically these ruts melt away over the course of a game and turn into footnotes, but this one did not. Tatum made just 7 of 30 shots and 2 of 15 3-pointers.
“Sometimes you’ve got to laugh at yourself,” Tatum said. “I guess I’m good for one of those a season. Hopefully, that’s the last one. Get it out the way. We’ve got 81 more.”
He seemed determined to flip his night when he drove toward the right baseline with time running down near the end of the first overtime. But his fadeaway 15-footer was an air-ball, a good summation of his evening. Brown, whose dominant play had given Boston a chance, had stood unmarked and unencumbered near the left arc, and briefly appeared exasperated as he turned toward Boston’s bench with his palms facing the sky after Tatum’s miss.
For the Knicks, the night was the New York homecoming of former Celtics point guard Kemba Walker. The Garden crowd erupted when he was introduced in the starting lineup and was even louder when he drilled his first 3-pointer. He was not much of a factor after that, however, and his two turnovers in the final 30 seconds of regulation nearly flattened the Knicks.
But another, less heralded former Celtic was much more of a factor. Boston acquired Evan Fournier at the trade deadline last year hoping that he would ultimately re-sign with the team on a long-term deal. Instead, he chose New York, and on Wednesday he showed why the Celtics wanted him in the first place, as he poured in 32 points, including four 3-pointers that came during the first and second overtimes.
Udoka said the late lapses defending Fournier were a result of a shift in Boston’s defense. The Celtics had mostly been switching on every screen, but they altered that approach near the end to keep center Robert Williams on New York’s rumbling All-Star, Julius Randle, and that led to some miscommunication.
The Celtics trailed by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter, and when the Knicks had the ball and a 112-106 lead with 30 seconds left, Boston’s hopes appeared dashed. But former Celtic Kemba Walker committed turnovers on New York’s next two possessions, which ended with a Grant Williams layup and a pair of Robert Williams free throws, making it 112-110 with 11.5 seconds left.
Brown stumbled a bit on the ensuing inbounds and Fournier scored inside to stretch the lead back to 114-110. After a timeout, Brown drilled a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key to pull Boston within 1. Randle was fouled and hit a pair of free throws with 4.8 seconds to play.
The Knicks appeared ready to foul, but Tatum slipped after receiving the inbounds and the play suddenly turned hectic, with some of New York’s defenders seeming to anticipate the foul before the ball was fired upcourt to Smart, who hit a wide open 3-pointer to send the game to overtime.
“Jayson fell down and it might have worked in our favor,” Udoka said, “because they had to double team and it got him into the middle for that open shot.”
The teams combined to drill seven 3-pointers in the first two minutes of overtime, and then the reality that this is the season opener seemed to set in, with both teams looking completely gassed over three scoreless minutes.
“I think both teams, especially in the double overtime, feel it,” Tatum said. “You can see it, probably.”
Tatum had a chance to end a rough night with the 15-footer, but it was off, forcing a second overtime.
The offense wasn’t much better in the second extra session, either, with players on both teams tugging at their shorts and gasping. Brown missed an open dunk and Schroder missed an open layup, and after plenty of missed jumpers by both teams Randle attacked for a three-point play that gave the Knicks a 133-131 lead with 1:46 left.
Tatum answered with a three-point play at the 1:05 mark before Fournier drilled a 3-pointer. After Tatum missed inside, Derrick Rose attacked for a layup that made it 138-134 with 22.2 seconds remaining. Boston missed three 3-pointers on its next possession, and time ran out.
Still, Brown said the Celtics are leaving New York encouraged.
“We came out and we competed,” he said. “We didn’t back down. We weren’t threatened. We didn’t get big, wide-eyed like some teams and young teams might. A lot of our guys came ready to play.”