May 31, 2023

MIAMI – The Knicks can be happy about the season later. You have a whole summer for that. There are four months between now and training camp, and at some point there will be distance and space from this final game, this final chapter, and the Knicks may be able to toast a season where so much good has happened.

But that’s for then.

Right now this is going to annoy most of the Knicks, agitate them, because it should aggravate and disturb most of them, those who played a do-or-die game Friday night at Kaseya Center and turned in the kind of performances you’ awake at night.

Too bad too. If any other Knick had played with the attitude—and aptitude—of Jalen Brunson, there would be a basketball game Monday night at Madison Square Garden. There would have been at least another 48 minutes of basketball season, and as long as you still have a season left, you still have hope.

There is no game on Monday night. The Heat pulled off a 96–92 victory, winning all three in Miami and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals four games to two. The garden remains dark on Monday evenings and for the rest of the summer. No more hockey. No more hoops.

No more hope.

“The difference between winning and losing a playoff game,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, perhaps 20 minutes after the final buzzer was accompanied by the joyful grunts of 19,737 Heat fans, “is very, very small.”

Jalen Brunson scored 41 points against the Heat in the Game 6 loss.
Jalen Brunson scored 41 points against the Heat in the Game 6 loss.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

It came as no surprise that Brunson was the only Knick to honor the seriousness of the moment, leaving Knicks fans to dream of bigger things and better days for the last time. He scored 41 points, made 14 of his 22 shots and refused to let the Heat and the season stray too far from his grasp until the very end.

But he had no help. He had less than that. The other four starters hit 32 times on Friday-evening. They missed 27 of those shots. RJ Barrett finished 1-for-10. Julius Randle went 3-for-14. Quentin Grimes went 1-for-6. If any of them – just one – matched Brunson, we’d be talking about some fun Monday night.

“I was terrible tonight,” Barrett said. “I was very disappointed in how I played today. It’s a lot at the moment. You fight for something, you want something so bad.”

This will gnaw at them, and it should. This will annoy them and you better believe that’s fair because there were millions of Knicks fans at home who lived and died with every misfire and every missed opportunity, screaming at their TV. These Knicks helped remind their long-suffering constituents how fun meaningful games can be in May. There will be time enough to celebrate. And now time enough to process a sobering reality.

RJ Barrett (9) said he played "horrible" for the Knicks in their Game 6 loss.
RJ Barrett (9) said he played “terrible” for the Knicks in their Game 6 loss.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

Could have been more.

Should have been more.

“We wanted more,” Barrett said.

“We expected more,” said Randle.

“In the end,” said Thibodeau, “only one team will be left standing.”

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The Knicks wouldn’t be, not yet, not as they’re built right now, but they certainly had a legitimate shot at staying one of the final four standing. It doesn’t matter if that seemed like a hallucination back in September; in May it was real. It was possible.

“There were a lot of good moments and a lot of growth,” Brunson said, and he was right. But he knew how close the Knicks were to jumping ahead of schedule. He certainly saw Monday night beckon as the Knicks built a 14-point lead in the first quarter, and he could still see a final shine in the final 30 seconds, the ball in his hands, the Knicks somehow just two behind, somehow with one last shot…

Only the shot didn’t come. Brunson tried to force a pass. The Heat stole it. It was about as cruel an irony as the night could have presented, but Brunson, of course, acknowledged it.

Julius Randle (30) shot 3-for-14 from the field in Game 6.
Julius Randle (30) shot 3-for-14 from the field in Game 6.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

“I have to give us a chance,” Brunson said. “That turnover is unacceptable.”

What he didn’t say, never would say, true as it is, was that he’d only given the Knicks a chance. That was when they were still learning who they were as a team. It was true, as he instantly built a scrapbook of his first 11 playoff games as a Knick that stands with anyone who wore the uniform through their first 11 postseason games.

He wouldn’t welcome that. None of them were in the mood for applause. If the idea of ​​getting this far in September was fanciful, it turned out to be real. They had a chance, still have a chance in the last minute of the last game.

“We have to use what we’ve learned,” said Thibodeau, “and move on.”

They will do so in the coming weeks. They will see the possibilities ahead and may even stop to reflect on what they have done this year. Just not now. Just not yet. They wanted more.

“This,” said Brunson, “will sting.”