The Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks battled for local supremacy on Monday night in a thrilling game that highlighted the existing inequities. A decidedly pro-Knicks crowd at the Barclays Center was a reminder that records and accomplishments largely mean nothing and New York will always revolve around the team draped in white, orange, and blue. But the fact that this game meant everything to the plucky upstarts from Manhattan and precious little to those from Boerum Hill made for a layered drama that delivered in full until the closing seconds.
After a furious late rally, Julius Randle had a chance to knot things up and force overtime with a long triple. Kyrie Irving got his hand in and made contact with the ball. Instead of shooting or passing, Randle simply came down with it and referee Scott Foster erroneously called a travel, essentially ending the contest.
Upon the final whistle sounding, Randle made a determined saunter toward Foster to confront him, causing Obi Toppin and a cadre of teammates and coaches to prevent a suspension-worthy incident. It was the embodiment of pure passion. And the embodiment of just how far the Knicks and Randle are from where they want to be.
Make no mistake. If there were any lingering doubt over which player is the heart and soul of Madison Square Garden, it's gone now. Randle played like a lion, pouring in 33 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and handing out 6 assists. He's the go-to guy and the necessary alpha. Many will say there's something admirable and inspiring about him caring this much in a regular-season game. That it reflects his will to win.
And there's probably some truth there. Yet here are so more hard ones: Randle's tantrum came after a play that, if called properly, would have afforded a jump ball with about three seconds remaining with his team needing a three to tie. The odds of doing that are extremely slim and even if realized, it would have meant overtime, not victory.
Seeing him lose his cool after falling to .500 highlighted the gulf between the two teams. The Nets are on a championship-or-bust ride. The Knicks are trying to figure out what to do with their hands after decades of being non-factors. Monday night felt like their championship.
That's not a knock. Ascending teams tend to bump up against their ceilings and limitations in painful ways. That's how they learn. Last night was a painful learning experience that manifested in a regrettable response, which could have been much, much worse.
Imagine for a second New York finds itself in a playoff series and a questionable call swings momentum. Having a leader that is going to get himself kicked out and possibly sidelined for upcoming games isn't the best situation. It's not clutching pearls or moralizing to suggest that Randle needs to have a cooler head if the Knicks are to accomplish anything meaningful in the postseason. It's simply pointing out that his presence on the court is essential.