|Both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade said they felt that Friday's game should not have been played. (AP)|
NEW YORK -- It started with Carmelo Anthony offering heartfelt words to the sellout crowd, and ended with chants for Rasheed Wallace to enter a blowout victory over the defending champions. Nothing about playing a basketball game in the famous arena on Seventh Avenue will change things for the better or worse around here, but for one night, it had its time and place.
There were different opinions about whether the Knicks and Heat should've played this game at all; about whether the season opener at Madison Square Garden should've gone the way of the New York City Marathon. Nobody was right or wrong about that, for the record. There was no good answer.
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But on a Friday night in midtown Manhattan, an oasis of relative normalcy in a region devastated by Hurricane Sandy, there was nothing wrong with taking three hours or so and playing a game.
To those like the Heat's Dwyane Wade, who thought playing the game would've somehow overinflated the importance of basketball in the face of such loss and destruction, Knicks vs. Heat actually served the opposite purpose. Canceling the game is what would've assigned an inappropriate level of meaning to a sporting event. Playing the game, in front of what turned out to be a stunningly sold-out house, seemed to put things in their proper place for a while.
"You really didn't know how many people were going to be here," Wade said after the Knicks stunned the Heat 104-84 Friday night. "No one knew. But it was great. ... It was an emotional kind of game for certain people and for this city. And it was a tough one for us to try to come in and get."
A day earlier, while the team bus was navigating three hours of snarled traffic from Newark Airport to Manhattan, Wade had tweeted about how silly it was to be playing a game in the middle of this. At shootaround Friday morning, he put his money where his tweets were, saying that he would donate his game check to storm relief efforts.
"The energy in the arena was amazing, and you've got the champs coming in as well," Wade said. "And that was a great time to let the community, let the fans and the families kind of forget about things for 2 ½, three hours. So it was great for us as an organization to be part of it."
What the outcome meant -- a dominant, locked-in performance from Anthony (30 points, 10 rebounds), a surprising defensive effort that held Miami to only 84 points and a mind-boggling 19-for-36 shooting performance from the Knicks at the 3-point line -- nobody knows for sure. Maybe the Heat got caught in the buzz-saw of emotion and big-event nature of their surroundings. Maybe, this strange brew of Anthony -- referred to now on the scoreboard and by the P.A. announcer as "Melo Anthony" -- and this collection of graybeard veterans will wind up being a legitimate challenge to Miami down the road. Again, nobody knows.
What we did know at the end of Friday night's festivities, given the recovery efforts underway for miles around, was that an important basketball game at the Garden remains as it should be: an event like almost no other in sports.
"You're talking about the best place, one of the best arenas in the country," said 39-year-old Jason Kidd, who has played in every one of them. "And with the storm and the aftermath, for people to come for two hours and relax and feel good about their home team, that was the biggest thing we tried to do tonight."
Nobody knew what to expect. After the Knicks' previously scheduled season opener in Brooklyn Thursday night was postponed because hardly anyone would've been able to get there on the city's savaged mass-transit system, Kidd thought maybe he'd see a crowd like he once played in front of on Christmas Day after a blizzard -- 5,000 or so, as he recalls. But as the players emerged from their respective locker rooms to warm up, the seats in even the most remote corners of the redesigned Garden began to fill up. Every single one of them. It was a sellout; 19,033 to be exact.
"Just to see the fans come out and support this game in the wake of everything that's been happening, that just does a lot to show you and tell you about this city," Anthony said.
There were warmups, and then a moment of silence for lives lost and families affected by the storm. Then, this new guy named Melo Anthony grabbed the mic and thanked everyone for coming.
"They switched it up," Anthony said of his apparent name change. "That's something that was new. New York has always got something new up under their sleeve, so I guess we'll stick with it. I guess the one name, Melo. We'll see."
And then the Knicks somehow ran the defending champs out of the place, sending Wade and LeBron James to the bench to watch the final 4 ½ minutes of a 20-point blowout.
"We're clearly much better than this," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Raymond Felton (14 points, nine assists) picked up right where he left off the last time he was a Knick, which is to say the last time he was an effective NBA player. J.R. Smith had six assists. Anthony was brilliant, scoring 16 of his 30 points in the first quarter and looking engaged and hungry on the boards and on the defensive end of the floor, as well.
"I just feel super focused right now," Anthony said. "I know what I have on this team. I've got to believe in the guys who are on this team, and those guys believe in me. They've seen all the work that I put in in the offseason, all the work I put in in practice. So I'm totally focused in, focused in on basketball."
Scary thought, if it lasts.
How sweetly strange and surprising was this night, this game that might not have happened if the decision to play had gone the other way? A few reporters were treated to something as rare as a Loch Ness Monster sighting, something I would've told you was less likely than famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger rising from the dead and sauntering into the Garden and dictating his memoir over the P.A. system.
James L. Dolan, the hermit-like chairman of Madison Square Garden, mystically appeared outside the Knicks' locker room before the game and engaged in approximately a one-minute conversation with a handful of reporters who were stunned into a dumbfounded state that rendered them almost incapable of doing their jobs.
After briefly exchanging storm stories and small talk, Dolan, for the record, answered a question. Granted, the question was "How are you doing?" But this meant that his five-plus year streak of not answering a single question from the media was technically over.
"It's a big game," Dolan said. "It's good for New York. ... A lot of people told me they were either coming or watching on TV. It will give people something to cheer about and take their mind off things for a couple of hours."
I never thought I'd write words in quotation marks set off by the words, "Dolan said," on this night, but you know what? He was right.