‘Everyone’ gave Knicks life

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As the final seconds melted away, after an evening when he’d loaded the Knicks on his shoulders and merely saved the season, Derrick Rose paused from dribbling out the clock, let the basketball do its own work at his feet, and applauded. It was exactly right. This was one of those nights at the Garden when the Knicks might have outscored the Hawks, but New York City won.

Rose wanted the 16,254 laryngitis candidates now standing and roaring and stamping their feet to know what everyone inside here knew: They were in this together. And while it might be the Knicks who will fly to Atlanta Thursday tied at 1-1 in this series after stuffing this 101-92 victory over the Hawks in their carry-on luggage, it was a collective effort.

“Everyone stepped up,” Rose said. “Everyone made big plays.”

The Knicks, it should be noted here, were in deep trouble. They were down 13 at the half and it felt worse than that. Julius Randle was scoreless, missing all six of his shots; statistically it was the single worst half of his entire career. The Knicks couldn’t make open shots. They couldn’t stay in front of the Hawks.

Trae Young was feasting on everyone: Knicks defenders and ticket-holders who greeted him from the layup line on with a longshoreman’s salutation.

The Knicks had two things going for them.

They had Rose, old man winter in a No. 4 jersey, who by himself was able to keep the Hawks within range of their telescopes. And the incessant belief tumbling from the darkened stands, filled with devotees and disciples who simply did not want to accept that this could be the last game played here for five months.

Together, they came back.

Rose started the second half, which was as symbolic as anything, Tom Thibodeau finally conceding to reality and benching his struggling, scuffling starter, Elfrid Payton. That alone seemed to energize the building. Then, 14 seconds in, Randle finally hopped off the schneid and drilled a 3-pointer. It cut the Knicks’ deficit to 10.

More important, it seemed to serve as a clarion call for the rest of the night.

“Julius,” Thibodeau said, “is not going to go away. He’s a fighter.”

So, we were reminded, is this team, which has never been more dangerous across the entirety of this season than when its backs were shoved to the brink of the abyss. The final record — 41-31 — makes it easy to forget there were several times this year when the Knicks’ flirtation with respectability very nearly disappeared into familiar sinkholes, but they never did succumb to the killer losing streaks that have massacred past seasons.

Always, it seemed, they had answers, even if they seemed improbable.

This night they would have another. Even if it seemed impossible.

“We couldn’t lose two on our own court,” Randle said. “Our intensity went to another level.”

They held the Hawks, an explosive offensive team, to 35 second-half points. They erased every bit of that 13-point halftime hole and actually took a one-point lead into the fourth — then expanded it to 10. Suddenly the vulgar chants aimed at Young had been replaced by a far different rallying cry:

“Knicks in five! Knicks in five! Knicks in five!

And just as suddenly, that 88-78 lead with 8 ½ minutes to go had become a 91-91 tie when Young found Clinto Capela for an alley-oop 3 ½ minutes later.

But even then, there was none of the other-shoe-dropping murmur that used to serve as a soundtrack for past Knicks playoff disappointments all the way back in the day. Even with that 13-3 spurt the Knicks didn’t seem panicked. Rose made a 7-foot hook shot (maybe the biggest of his 26 points). Reggie Bullock made a 3 — part of a bounce-back, 15-point night for him — that nearly peeled the paint off the walls. And Randle (15 points, 12 rebounds) found Taj Gibson (a remarkable plus-23 rating) for a dunk.

It was 98-91. It was over. Soon the people were on their feet, and Rose was applauding the people, and what had felt for a good two hours like an unwanted funeral dirge had a decidedly different tone. The series is 1-1. The Knicks have life heading to Atlanta. They will get at least one more game at the Garden. And still have a puncher’s chance at keeping this wonderfully absurd ride alive a little while longer.

“I love this team,” Thibodeau said, echoing the feelings of the faithful as they stood and stomped and helped drag the team from the dregs. “There’s such a great will and determination to them.”

There’s some life in there too, and hope, and belief as much as anything, even when it feels like the wheels are spinning off. They didn’t. Not this time. Not this night. Not quite yet.

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