Game of the night: Welcome back to big-time basketball, New York

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Paul Pierce was taking bows after a December regular-season game. Spike Lee was out on the court yelling at the referees and the Celtics. The biggest stars were spectacular on a court lit like a stage. There was an impressive game-winner and almost a stunner that topped it — the best ending to a game this season. There was Madison Square Garden as loud as anyone could remember.

All that is why it is good to have the New York Knicks back. And Wednesday night was their welcome back party. Even though it was a 118-116 loss.

As Pierce said in his postgame television interview, the Knicks have arrived. No, they are not elite, not contenders, but interesting and worth watching. And certainly not an easy out. Which is more than you could say about the Knicks for a very long time.

The NBA is better when its biggest franchises are good. Like Boston. Like the Lakers. And like the Knicks. Like the city where it plays, this Knicks team comes with an aggressive attitude and a little edge. These Knicks have swagger and you could see it in the way Amar’e Stoudemire and the rest of the team went hard to the rim (or drove and kicked out to shooters).

Root for them or against them. Having them back is just better.

And two good teams on a big stage leads to some special endings. The last couple minutes of this one was just basketball at its best — dramatic and filled with big plays.

The Knicks led most of the game, by as much as 12 points, but were up just four with two minutes left, and it was hard not to imagine how many times this Celtics team had been in this very spot over the last three years and found a way to win. Boston got a dunk then a couple of free throws on the next possession from Kevin Garnett and the game was tied. Then, with a minute to go, Ray Allen drained a go-ahead 3-pointer and it felt like a dagger.

But these Knicks have swagger. Danilo Gallinari reminded us all he is not just a spot-up shooter by putting the ball on the floor and driving, drawing the foul and hitting the 5-foot floater for the one-and-one. He hit the free throw and it was tied — and the Garden faithful were fit to be tied.

The Knicks’ second-to-last possession was their real chance. After a couple of pretty ugly high pick-and-rolls the Celtics defended well, Raymond Felton and Stoudemire tried one more time and went with something that had worked earlier in the game — Stoudemire slipped the screen, got open and got the ball back in the paint. Glen Davis had rotated over, but Stoudemire got a clean-look 5-footer that rimmed out. Boston got the rebound and its last chance.

With the game on the line, the Celtics went back to an old tried-and-true play for them — Pierce in isolation on the wing. It has had mixed results over the years, but they went to it again. After a pick that the Knicks switched through, Pierce had Stoudemire on him and he tried to drive right but Stoudemire got his body in there. Pierce used that, drove into his defender then did the quick stepback 14-footer. Nylon.

Pierce did a victory lap. Nate Robinson tried to jump on his back and slid right off — no Shrek and Donkey routine here — and you could tell this was no ordinary game for the Celtics. They celebrated like it was a playoff win.

But it wasn’t a win yet. The Knicks had four-tenths of a second left and no Derek Fisher on their roster. But oh, so close. Heartbreakingly so, like a Broadway tragedy. They ran a half-court inbound play where Gallinari peeled off a couple picks, but the Celtics were focused on him. Stoudemire popped straight out and was wide open and got the ball, then turned his body and shot from 25 feet. Nylon. The Knicks piled on each other and the noise almost knocked down the roof in the Garden (again).

But Stoudemire only had time for a catch-and-shoot. No turning his body, too. The shot clearly did not leave his hands in time. Boston won after a review and the correct call.

You had Pierce taking his bows to the crowd.

But it really should have been Stoudemire — 39 points, the ninth-straight game he has reached 30 or more — and his Knicks. They are his Knicks.

They earned it. They are back and putting on a great show on our nation’s biggest stage. And that is good for every true basketball fan. Because more nights like this are good for all of us.

Report: Re-signing Nerlens Noel Mavericks’ top off-season priority

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This is a Mark Cuban owned team, you don’t think the Mavericks are going to make a serious run at a free agent come July 1? Pelicans’ point guard Jrue Holiday has long been known to be a target, but there will be others.

But keeping their new core together, including restricted free agent Nerlens Noel, is the top priority, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Rumors like this are out there in part from Dallas to hope to chill the market for Noel. While he could be a defensive force who provides some scoring around the rim, with Noel’s injury history they may be able to get him at less than max money — because if he’s at the max the Mavericks are flirting with the luxury tax (and Cuban isn’t going to want to pay the tax for a borderline playoff team at best).

What Dallas fears is what Brooklyn did last season to Allen Crabbe in Portland and Tyler Johnson in Miami — some team to come in with a max or near-max offer sheet that drives up the price. Dallas will match, they will keep the young core together, it just gets more expensive.

Next season in Dallas will be a deserved big farewell to Dirk Nowitzki. He will be the focus, but behind him Dallas will try to be building for the future. They made the trade deadline move to make sure Noel is a part of that, the only question now is how much it costs them.

Magic Johnson on drafting Lonzo Ball: “what I needed was a leader”

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Nobody, not even his critics with the Lakers, question that D'Angelo Russell had talent. What they questioned from the start was his work ethic and maturity. I was told by sources with the team he often was the last one to team meetings, often one of the first out of the gym, and the whole Nick Young thing spoke to the maturity question. Byron Scott took a lot of heat as Lakers’ coach for benching him, and Scott’s communication skills were lacking, but he had reasons. Russell also just 21 and maybe he finds his way, but the Lakers weren’t willing to wait anymore.

Which is why the Lakers were willing to move him to Brooklyn in the Brook Lopez trade, and why the Lakers went after Lonzo Ball in the draft, Magic Johnson said, via Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

Is Lonzo Ball a leader? Only time will tell, he has the potential.

Will players want to play with him? Yes, if the passing skills he showed in college transfer to the NBA. If guys know they will get the rock if they run/cut, then they will do just that. It’s some simple B. F. Skinner stuff here — if players are rewarded they will keep doing it. Get them the rock in transition and they will get out there every time.

Ball has flaws in his game, there are certainly questions about his defense, and how that awkward shot translates remains to be seen (it goes in but his time to get it off will decrease at the NBA level)? Will he be a scoring threat in the half-court? He’s got work to do. But answer those questions and the Lakers may have the key piece to help anchor a franchise he’s been looking for.

Sacramento Kings waive guard Arron Afflalo

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) The Sacramento Kings have waived guard Arron Afflalo one year after signing him as a free agent.

The Kings cut ties with Afflalo on Friday before his entire $12.5 million contract for 2017-18 would become guaranteed. Afflalo will get $1.5 million instead.

Afflalo averaged 8.4 points and 2 rebounds in 61 games this past season for Sacramento. He has averaged 11.3 points per game in his 10-year career.

 

Frustrated fan: John McEnroe says Knicks a ‘total train wreck’

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NEW YORK (AP) — John McEnroe had a ringside seat for the ugliest bout at Madison Square Garden last season.

He was sitting just feet away when former Knicks star Charles Oakley was surrounded by security officials at his seat, shoving them away before being handcuffed and arrested while watching a game in February.

Even before that, the tennis great had begun to lose patience with his favorite team.

“It’s like a total train wreck,” McEnroe said.

The low point during a miserable 2016-17 season came when Oakley was dragged out of MSG in the first quarter of a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. A fan favorite as a player, he had fallen out of favor with the organization in retirement after critical comments about the team and MSG chairman James Dolan.

McEnroe, who often travels for his tennis or other obligations, wasn’t aware of the history between Oakley and Dolan.

“I didn’t even realize at the time that Charles had said bad things about him,” McEnroe said. “I hadn’t been up on that, so it wasn’t awkward for me when he sort of poked me in my back, Charles, right before the incident happened. I was like, `Hey Charles, how are you? This is my son, Kevin.’ He was with me.

“So I didn’t put 2 and 2 together and I didn’t know what had happened or really what had transpired,” he said. “So maybe Jim was already uncomfortable because of past history or whatever and then when Charles and the security guys started to go at it, even before they started to come up to him I was like, `Uh oh, this is not going to go well, at all.”‘

McEnroe is clearly visible in replays of the skirmish that were shown that night and throughout the next day.

“To see Charles Oakley have handcuffs put on him was horrible. Like, I was sick to my stomach, as well as almost every other fan that was in there watching this as it took place,” McEnroe said. “I bet you Jim Dolan – this is just my opinion – had to feel terrible about what that was.”

McEnroe grew up in and still lives in New York, and considers MSG his home arena. The inside cover of his new book, “But Seriously,” is decorated with ticket stubs from games and concerts at the arena, including a Knicks playoff game. But like many Knicks fans, he’s getting fed up with what he sees.

“I mean I’ve been a Knicks fan since I was a kid, so this is just getting beyond belief,” he said.

McEnroe has owned a home in Malibu, California, for more than 30 years. He often trained in Los Angeles as one of the world’s top players during the early-to-mid 1980s, befriending Lakers executive Jeanie Buss and Linda Rambis, whose husband Kurt played for the great Lakers teams of that era that were led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“Watching this was like, I’m sitting there going, why the hell am I a Knick fan again?” McEnroe said, “because this is just absolutely unbelievable, watching Showtime.”

Dolan hired Phil Jackson, who won five titles as Lakers coach, as Knicks president in 2014. But the team has missed the playoffs every season under Jackson, who feuded with Carmelo Anthony last season and didn’t speak to reporters at all while the team went 31-51.

“I mean, he’s known as the Zen Master, like a master talker, and then he’s not talking to anybody,” McEnroe said of Jackson. “So this whole thing seems to have gone completely off the rails.”

Jackson is still hoping to trade Anthony, who has a no-trade clause. McEnroe said he was never the biggest fan of Anthony’s game, but that the All-Star forward didn’t deserve the treatment he received last season.

“It’s crazy to treat a guy that way,” McEnroe said. “It seems like, even if it would be better for both guys if they weren’t there – the Knicks and him – the whole thing just seems, I can’t believe how bungled this has gotten.”