NEW YORK -- At last, the New York Knicks are worthy of their city's respect and admiration, a truth that will make the inevitable end of this relationship so difficult for team and fan base to accept.
Yes, it is going to be a damn shame to break up these suddenly lovable Knicks. Both parties are going to suffer. Both parties are going to cry.
But let's face it: The Knicks are supposed to be in the business of winning a championship, something they haven't done in 38 years. And despite this deliriously good 93-88 victory over the world famous Miami Heat, this team will never flower into the first group of Knicks not coached by Red Holzman to win the NBA title.
Consider how much had to go right for the Knicks to score their very first victory over the Eastern Conference elite, the Miamis, Bostons and Orlandos. If it didn't take an act of God, it did take an act of a commissioner who often plays God on TV, David Stern, whose lieutenants wouldn't let Dwyane Wade wear dark-tinted goggles to ease the lingering effects of a migraine.
Yet the Knicks still needed Danilo Gallinari to make a pair of huge contested 3-pointers in the fourth, and they needed Landry Fields to make his own big 3-pointer and to fly around the rim, grab every loose ball in sight, and make the kind of rookie impression on the city that some kid named Derek Sanderson Jeter made in 1996.
You thought Jeter was made for this marketplace? "After getting a taste of this so far," Fields said, "no, I couldn't imagine playing anywhere else. I'd love to be here forever."
So would Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, the restricted-free-agent-to-be who held a meeting with Amare Stoudemire's agent, Happy Walters, to see if Stoudemire's guy is the rep who can keep him with Stoudemire's team.
Only Walters wasn't the only talent scout in the house. Carmelo Anthony's manager and adviser, Robert "Bay" Frazier, took in Heat-Knicks and tweeted this about his Garden appearance: "Crazy in here!"
It's going to get crazier if Melo lands the three-year, $65 million extension with the Knicks that he doesn't really want to sign with the Nets.
"It would be hard to break up this team for one round in the playoffs this year," Walters said on the night his client, Stoudemire, became the first Knick voted in as an All-Star starter since Patrick Ewing in 1997.
"Is that worth it? It would be better if the Knicks could wait until the summer."
Everyone is in agreement on that. The Knicks could retain their developing young players, trade Anthony Randolph for a first-round pick that they would keep for themselves, and sign Carmelo Anthony for whatever the new collective bargaining agreement would allow them to pay. When they were finished conducting all of that business, the Knicks could then send a delegation to Moscow for the sole purpose of doing an end zone dance in Mikhail Prokhorov's office.
But odds are Anthony won't chance the sacrifice of millions of dollars under a new CBA, and the Denver Nuggets won't chance losing him for nothing and ending up like the Cleveland Cavaliers in the wretched Year 1 A.B. -- After Bron. The Knicks will likely have to deal with the Nuggets before next month's deadline, and here's the good news:
The more Gallinari (20 points) and Fields (19 points, 13 rebounds) play like this, the more the Nuggets will be enticed by their potential.
"I'd like to see Carmelo happy," James said, "if that's staying in Denver, if that's being in New York, New Jersey, wherever the case may be. ... The No. 1 thing is being happy, and it doesn't matter where that's at."
Anthony would be happy with these Knicks, if only they could stay as one. Stoudemire (24 points) is a legitimate franchise player, no Steve Nash required, and Raymond Felton is a point guard out of small-town South Carolina with all kinds of big-town New York moxie.
The Knicks also have some encouraging role players; in fact, Fields is already among the best role players in the league. Wade made 14 of his first 15 field-goal attempts and finished with 34 points, but with Fields challenging him in the fourth quarter, Wade missed his final seven shots.
Shawne Williams wasn't afraid to body up LeBron when it mattered most, either, honoring Mike D'Antoni's most pressing pregame request. On the grease board in the Knicks' locker room, under the heading "Keys to Game," the first defensive charge read like this:
"Make Wade/James feel you as a defender."
Wade and James definitely felt the Knicks on Thursday night, and the home team broke its embarrassing 10-game losing streak to LeBron, making the Garden as loud as it's been all season.
"It was like a playoff game," Felton said. "It's always fun when it's like that."
As a potential sixth playoff seed, these Knicks are probably good enough and tough enough to beat Chicago in the first round before losing to the Heat or Celtics in the second. With Miami expected to assume the role of juggernaut for four years or more, the Knicks, as constituted, will likely never make it out of the conference tournament alive.
"We can get better from here," D'Antoni maintained. "We can build on this."
They can build a contender, but not a champ. Maybe that was forgotten at the final buzzer, when James left the court with his mouthpiece dangling from his lips, a loser in his favorite building -- the building he could've owned.
LeBron chose South Beach over Jones Beach, leaving the Knicks to chase the next best thing in the form of Carmelo Anthony. Sooner or later, to keep up with the Jameses and Boshes and Wades, the Knicks will have to break up this fun and gritty little club.
The blossoming love affair between fan base and team is destined to end, and it's not going to make either side feel better to hear these four consoling words:
No pain, no gain.