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We are well-acquainted with the athletic sniper lying in wait in New York City, the visitor ever capable of bursting our bubble — or, at the least, silencing our thunder — with one flick of his wrist, one swing of his bat, one puck through a vulnerable five-hole.
That is always the flip side of these magnificent atmospheres created by the marriage of our fabled sporting cathedrals and our holler-till-we’re hoarse passions, after all. Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, Shea/Citi, the old Meadowlands — they are all amazingly intimidating places to play. Until they aren’t.
Until someone kicks a plug out of the wall.
Until someone stands up to the dense din and says: “No.”
Until Flipper Anderson gathers in a touchdown pass from Jim Everett and disappears through a tunnel, muting 76,325 rabid Giants fans. Until Terry Pendleton/Mike Scioscia/Yadier Molina hits one high and far over the Flushing night, ushering in early winters for Mets fans. Until Johnny Damon hits a pair of home runs over The Bronx sky, slamming the trunk shut on 86 years of Red Sox frustration.
Until Trae Young shakes and bakes and drives through the Knicks’ proud defense Sunday night, launches and makes one of his trademark floaters with 0.9 seconds left, the backbreaker and heartache-er for the Knicks and 15,047 witnesses, all of whom had spent the previous 2 ½ hours filling the Garden with an energy — and a pointed venom — we hadn’t heard in these parts in years.
“The fans are a big part of it,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said Tuesday, reflecting on the give-and-take between the Garden crowd and the Atlanta Hawks’ young star, who seemed to feed off every decibel of it. “Great players are a part of it and the playoffs are special.”
It was impossible not to see the perfect symmetry between this new Garden villain and the most wanted MSG outlaw of all, Reggie Miller. There have been other objects of MSG’s obsession — Michael Jordan jumps to mind — but even in the teeth of those epic old Knicks-Bulls games there was an underlying respect, even a reverence, in the jeering of Jordan.
There was nothing respectful about “CHERRRRRR-YLLLLL!” which was the Knicks’ fans taunt of choice back in the ’90s. There was nothing respectful about the jawing back and forth between Miller and his two favorite foils, Spike Lee and Puff Daddy, certainly nothing reverent about the way Miller wrapped his hands around his own neck on the night of June 1, 1994, when his legend was born, when he scored 25 fourth-quarter points and made five fourth-quarter 3s in Game 5 of the conference finals.
“God,” Miller declared after that one, “I live for this. To me, this is the greatest place to play basketball.”
Miller rented space in the Knicks’ heads from that moment on. Even then-Garden boss Bob Gutkowski said the night of that spree: “Spike Lee lost the game for us. He got Reggie Miller pissed off.”
“His [onions] are as big as bowling balls,” Larry Brown said.
And then there was Young on Sunday, merrily pouring in 32 points and handing out 10 assists and taking over the fourth quarter in the face of Knicks fans greeting him early and serenading him often with the charming greeting: “[BLEEP] TRAE YOUNG!”
Later Young would say, in a rebuttal that Miller surely would have endorsed: “As I hit the floater it just felt like everyone got quiet. I was waiting for them ‘[bleep]-you’ chants again.”
It may not have been as personal as invoking Reggie’s All-American sister from back in the day, but it did echo the greeting Yankee Stadium offered Jose Altuve a few weeks ago; you may recall that that one ended badly, too.
“It’s part of the game,” said Thibodeau, who saw a few of Miller’s retorts back in the day from up close, and who watched helplessly as Young brought his index finger to his lips after splashing the game-winner on Sunday, a 2.0 version of Reggie’s gagging taunt.
The wonder of Reggie Miller, of course, is that he had a bunch of these moments in him; he even transferred his mystical Gotham spell across the river to Continental Arena one night in 2002, draining a ridiculous 30-footer at the buzzer to send a decisive Game 5 against the Nets into overtime.
Young, as of now, is just a one-hit wonder. But he also is only 22 years old. Sunday was also only his first playoff game. And he surely seemed to relish everything about that moment as much as Miller did in 1994, and 1995, and 1998, and 2002.
“I must be doing something right,” Young said.
He sure did Sunday. Wednesday the Knicks — and the Garden’s throaty denizens — get to see if they are as equal to the moment as their new quarry was. Game on.
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