As much as we sometimes like to pretend they do, sports teams do not exist in a vacuum. Players read the New York Post and watch ESPN. They tweet and check their mentions. They follow the exploits of other players in that obsessive, thorough way that people keep track of their peers. And when these players become part of a team that has an identity greater than their own, they start to let it seep in to them.
The Knicks’ identity over the last decade and a half is one of calamity, and the current iteration of the team isn’t straying from that narrative at all, as shown in their Game 4 win over Miami. To call it a Phyrric victory might even be too kind; after rolling over and playing dead in Game 1, which they lost by 33 points, and then dropping Games 2 and 3 by double-digits as well, the Knicks finally showing up at home in Game 4 was so belated a performance that they pretty much owed it to their fans as a courtesy. Nobody gave New York — a team without an adequate point guard, a team whose two best players are essentially redundant — much of a chance of offing the Heat, but everyone expected more from them than losing three games by an average of 20 points.
So, sure enough, the fireworks in Game 4 have everyone excited. Postgame Twitter chatter occupied one of two poles: either people were in ecstasy, lost in that unique kind of battered joy that comes when your team breaks a losing streak of 13 playoff games; or they were talking down to the giddy kids and reminding them of how stupid and mismatched and ridiculous a team the Knicks are. But both sides are right. If the Knicks were to win games 5, 6, and 7, they’d be the first team in NBA history to come back from being down 3-0 to win a seven-game playoff series, and so the chances of this happening — particularly with the 3 of the team’s 4 best guards sidelined by injury — are essentially zero. And yet, your team’s first playoff win in more than a decade is definitely something to celebrate, because it indicates some progress, even if that progress is a fragile and transparent and more decorative than anything else.
Here’s the thing, though: this all seems according to plan. The Knicks have become this organization that strives to fulfill the media’s warped and vicious perceptions of them, that seems to photosynthesize the glow of attention into the energy that makes them whir. This season could not have been any more grabby, and I don’t even feel like I need to go back through all the shenanigans, because if you’re a living, web-consuming human being, you’ve already had the plot points slid forcibly down your trachea. Now, we have this playoff series that the Knicks knew they would lose, and so they did it as Knickerbockerly as possible: they played like limp seals for 144 minutes, Amar’e inadvertently filleted his own hand, and then they snatched a game through the heroics of the least heroic player in the NBA, Carmelo Anthony. Melo’s occasional fireworks make his more regular inefficiencies all the more emphatic — the dude is like the Incredible Hulk of basketball players, dicking around most of the time and then turning green every so often.
So, the Knicks did it for the lulz. They managed to keep you watching them, even when you thought it was all right to turn away. Want a really great example? Anticipation for game 5 is at a fever pitch thanks to chatter about the possible return of Jeremy Lin, even though Lin is, according the Knicks organization, unlikely to play. And if he doesn’t play, MIKE BIBBY WILL BE THE KNICKS’ ONLY POINT GUARD. (We’re just accepting that Toney Douglas has been phased out of this dimension and into another, in which he can take off-balance low-percentage shots until the end of time.) Getting people to tune in to a game in which your starting point guard is Mike Bibby and you’ll probably lose by 25: now that’s magnificent trolling.