When Julius Randle made his game-winning buzzer beater on Friday to close out the preseason, the Garden sounded as loud as if it were a playoff game.
Now the games are for real and the Knicks look like they’re for real again, too.
The Garden’s deafening roars from 16,000-plus fans during the playoff loss to Atlanta made for a national conversation. The madhouse atmosphere felt like a symbolic end to the pandemic.
While the pandemic isn’t over, the Garden, empty to start last season, will be packed Wednesday with 19,000-plus fans as the Knicks open their 2021-22 season against the rival Celtics. Boston is a club some feel is poised to overtake the Knicks in the souped-up Eastern Conference.
The season opener also marks the Knicks debut of Bronx native Kemba Walker, the starting point guard who admits this will be “a special moment in my career.’’
“Chaos,’’ Randle said after Tuesday’s final practice before showtime. “We’re expecting chaos. The city’s excited to get basketball back. We’re excited, starting of a new season, so it’ll be fun.”
Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks were a special group last season when they ended a seven-season playoff drought and earned the fourth seed in the East with a 41-31 record. They bring back a lot of the same cast except with Walker manning the point in a platoon with Derrick Rose and Evan Fournier replacing Reggie Bullock as the starting shooting guard.
The Knicks captured the city’s imagination last season, but Randle knows they can’t rest on their laurels.
“That s–t’s over with, this is on to the new one,” Randle said.
Indeed, the Knicks — and Randle — took everyone by surprise and storm last season.
Though prognosticators believe that record was inflated in a COVID-affected 72-game season and most don’t see them as repeating as a fourth seed, there are much-higher expectations in 2021-22 than last season.
“It’s an opinion,’’ Thibodeau said of the high expectations. “Last year when we started was an opinion. It doesn’t matter — praise or critics. The only thing that matters is what we think.’’
What the Knicks still lack in marquee players (Randle is the lone reigning All-Star), they make up for in chemistry and a hard-driving spirit that Thibodeau instilled in his first season.
The Knicks were a close-knit group, but that occurred during strict pandemic rules that eliminated outside distractions associated with playing in the Big Apple.
Thibodeau credited Knicks president Leon Rose and executive William Wesley for putting together a high-character group.
“Everyone is putting [in] extra work, which is an important aspect of becoming a team — making a commitment to each other,’’ Thibodeau said. “No shortcuts to this. The best way to build the infrastructure of the team is guys that have similar traits — team-first, toughness and basketball IQ, competitiveness and character. We put a premium on that and the shooting component is huge for us.’’
Walker had a modest preseason, but he seemed to be holding back, missing one game to rest his left knee. But there’ll be no holding back now that the regular season is here.
“It’s here,’’ Walker said. “I’m ready. We’re all ready. We all look forward to opening night. I’m from here. I’m in a Knicks uniform. It’s going to make it 10 times more special.’’
That the Celtics are the opponent makes it even sweeter. Promoted to GM, Brad Stevens couldn’t have dispatched Walker to Oklahoma City, which then bought out Walker’s deal, fast enough in June.
“Of course it matters,’’ Walker said. “This is my old team. Does it make it that much better that it’s my old team? No question.’’
Thibodeau cites the Knicks’ strength as its depth — boasting a returning second unit headed by Rose. The Knicks coach felt the starting lineup was still feeling itself out with Walker and Fournier learning their new teammates. They didn’t get a chance to play much with potential starting center Mitchell Robinson either as he missed all but the preseaon finale, when he came off the benh.
“I agree,’’ Walker said. “We just got here. Guys just don’t develop chemistry overnight. It takes time, reps and games communication and toughness comes into play. We’re two of the two guys trying to fit in. It’s going to take time. Some nights better than others until we get that chemistry going. ‘’
The one thing the Knicks won’t have to worry about is getting the crowd going Wednesday.