ORLANDO, Fla. — Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said early last week he had “ideas” on what caused the Knicks’ early-season downfall after a 5-1 start.
I have one, too.
Sunday marked the first visit to Orlando since the season’s second game on Oct. 22, when the Knicks faced the woeful magic and were pounding them into submission.
Coming off their season-opening dramatic double-overtime win over the Celtics, the Knicks built a 32-point lead midway through the second quarter.
The transplanted New Yorkers were soaking it all up. They filled downtown Orlando’s Amway Center with a delightful sound — even as Thibodeau kept to one of his coaching eccentricities of running up the score.
This was long before starting point guard Kemba Walker quit on the season at the All-Star break, before Derrick Rose broke down in December and before the fans turned on Julius Randle, their reigning All-Star power forward.
The Knicks were up 24 points. There was 6:41 left and Randle came rushing back into the game for second-year man Obi Toppin.
Randle kept churning to the basket as if this were a one-point game. On one fast break, Knicks up 21, Randle turned into a runaway locomotive. Orlando power forward Wendell Carter tackled him to the floor, sending a message.
Randle got up steaming, shoved Carter. Officials and players intervened, but not before Randle had picked up a technical foul.
Realizing his miscue, Thibodeau pulled Randle from the game and he finished the night with 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
All should’ve been forgotten as the Knicks flew home with a 25-point, 121-96 rout and 2-0 record.
It wasn’t forgotten. Not by Orlando. This was a home-and-home and the Magic were right behind the Knicks’ charter in the sky, heading to New York, eager for revenge. The Magic players admitted they took the loss personally and Harlem native Mo Bamba said: “Thank God we have them again in a matter of 24 hours.”
Two days later, the Magic stormed into the Garden and New York native point guard Cole Anthony busted up Broadway for 29 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists.
The Magic pulled off the kind of stunning upset the Knicks weren’t used to during their magical 2020-21 regular season that saw them host teams in either an empty arena or before a smattering of fans (1,900 capacity).
Orlando’s team website mocked Knicks fans, tweeting out a photo of their “Bing-Bong” celebration outside the Garden after the home-opening win versus Boston.
Maybe this Orlando loss — courtesy of Thibodeau — was a first chink in the Knicks’ armor. Yes, the Knicks went on to a 5-1 start, but Orlando visited the mecca soon after — on Nov. 18.
Emboldened by their victory three weeks before, the Magic overcame a fourth-quarter deficit and posted another Garden victory, 104-98.
Orlando trailed 96-94 with 1:54 left but stunned the Knicks by outscoring them 10-2 the rest of the way. The Knicks had been a sensational fourth-quarter team all last season.
The loss dropped the Knicks to 8-7 as they absorbed their sixth loss in nine games. That air of superiority was vanishing. There was panic when the Knicks dropped to the .500 mark at 11-11 on Dec. 2 after a loss to the Bulls. Mediocrity had returned to 2 Penn Plaza.
It’s April now and the Knicks are playing out the string just like the Magic (20-58 heading into Sunday) — four games to go. “Bing-Bong” is now an NBA punch line.
The Knicks entered 10 games under .500 after being 10 games above .500 in 2020-21. Randle didn’t make the trip this time — having been shut down for the season after Thursday’s official postseason elimination.
The NBA is a mental game, a game of confidence and that’s what last season’s modest roster had in spades.
Along this sad journey, each unsettling loss chipped away at their confidence like falling dominoes. Perhaps the two home losses to Orlando aided the Knicks losing belief in themselves.
It’s just one domino-related idea.