Knicks didn’t get the ending they wanted, but created the memories they deserve

This is what it can still be like in sports, the way it was over the past month, when great, big places – like this one – feel like a small town, rooting on the town team.

In the end, that’s exactly what happened around here, as New York fell in love this way, with this Knicks team, felt about the Knicks the way it hasn’t since the 90s, hanging on every shot, most of them coming from Jalen Brunson, who kept having himself even more of a month than his team was having until he went to the locker room for good.

They kept losing players, and kept coming. By the time the Knicks got to Game 7 against the Pacers on Sunday afternoon, you really did start to wonder if they would have to go into the stands and suit up Clyde Frazer and John Starks just to keep playing 5-on-5.

But then the ending went all wrong. OG Anunoby came out on a bad leg and made a couple of shots before it quickly became apparent he couldn’t move. Josh Hart, playing through an abdomen injury, clearly wasn’t himself. And that wasn’t the worst part of it all. The worst part was that at the worst possible moment – one game for your season, even a pretty wonderful season was like this – is that the other team wouldn’t miss.

When that happens, you lose the big game, the way teams lose in hockey when a goalie loses his mind and stops every shot. Or a deciding game in baseball when a pitcher goes out, the way Josh Beckett did one time against the Yankees in the World Series, and pitches the game of his life. That’s sports, too. You don’t always get to write the ending you think your team deserves.

And here is another reality of what just happened to the Knicks, when you strip away the romance of what they did and how they made everybody around here feel and how far they came:

The Knicks didn’t lose this series in Game 7 as much as they lost it in Game 3, when they had a chance to go up 3-0 and didn’t, when they were ahead by nine with under 10 minutes to go and got outscored 22-8 the rest of the way and lost.

The Knicks and their fans have a perfect right to wonder how this could have gone before Brunson broke his hand in the third quarter of Game 7; how things would have gone against the Pacers if Anunoby hadn’t first grabbed his leg and Hart hadn’t grabbed for his midsection at the end of Game 6; what this team would have looked like in the spring if Julius Randle hadn’t been gone from the season months ago. But the Knicks really started losing to the Pacers, really were on their way to losing Game 7, at the end of Game 3, when they could have given themselves some room to really breathe for the first time since the playoffs began.

Andrew Nembhard made his desperation 31-footer that night in Indy. That was the knockout blow. The Pacers had stayed alive and given themselves the chance to do what they finally did on Sunday, and knock the Knicks all the way into next season.

“That was just an in-the-moment type thing,” Nembhard said when Game 3 was over, talking about his shot.

Sometimes in sports season-changing moments like that are everything. In so many ways, even with more injuries to follow, the Knicks never recovered from Nembhard’s shot. That World Series I mentioned before, the one where Josh Beckett blew away the Yankees in Game 6 at the old Stadium, the Yankees had started losing that one when Alex Gonzalez hit a walk-off home run in Game 4 when the Yankees had the chance to go ahead three games to one.

Nembhard wasn’t supposed to be the guy who made that kind of crazy Steph Curry shot. Gonzalez wasn’t supposed to be the guy who hit that kind of World Series home run in 2003. These are just the moments that help cost your team its season, in seasons when the ending is not only the one you wanted it to be, but the one you convinced yourself it was supposed to be.

And guess what? The 76ers are probably wondering how their first-round series against the Knicks would have gone, what kind of ending that one would have had, if Joel Embiid had been playing on two good knees instead of just one.

It doesn’t change how much there really was to love about Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks, and respect. Game 7 was never going to be a defining moment for this particular Knicks team, because they had defined themselves for their fans before they ever got to Sunday afternoon. They had given their fans a memory, if not a trip back to the Eastern Conference finals, and that trip up to Boston.

This Knicks team, even before Brunson broke his hand, wasn’t going to beat the Celtics, not this year, not as wounded as it was. But all the Knicks, and their fans, had wanted for months was to get their shot at the Celtics. They just wanted the Knicks to be playing the Game 1 in Boston on Tuesday night that the Pacers, who turned out to be pretty tough themselves, play against Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and them.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Knicks punched above their weight until the end, did everything anyone could have possibly asked them to do this season through all those injuries, everything except make it from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday night. The great Bill Parcells once said that most of the time, nobody remembers why you lost, they just remember that you lost. Just not always.