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If a basketball team falls in the Garden and no one is there to see it, yes, it still really happened.
The Knicks played a regular-season game at Madison Square Garden for the first time since March 8 — a stretch of 293 days — on Saturday night, albeit with no fans in attendance and no Celebrity Row stars to gawk at due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The end result wasn’t dissimilar from the majority of the team’s home games over the previous two years, however, as coach Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks suffered their second straight loss to open the season, 109-89, to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Second-year guard RJ Barrett (10 points) missed 13 of 15 shots in a nightmarish follow-up to his 26-point season-opening performance in Wednesday’s loss at Indiana. He combined with starting backcourt mate Elfrid Payton to shoot just 2-for-21 for the game and 0-for-9 from 3-point range as the Knicks fell to 20-55 at home since the start of the 2018-19 campaign.
Julius Randle led the Knicks (0-2) with 25 points and Alec Burks netted 22 in 31 minutes in his second straight strong showing off the bench. Mitchell Robinson added 11 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots.
Rookie first-round picks Obi Toppin (calf) and Immanuel Quickley (hip pointer) missed the game for the Knicks, who will face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks at the Garden on Sunday night.
With Quickley unavailable, Thibodeau used Burks for stretches at point guard and reduced his rotation to nine players until the game was out of reach late in the fourth quarter. Dennis Smith Jr. (four points in 17 minutes) saw his first action of the season after not playing against the Pacers, while Frank Ntilikina did not get off the bench until 2:27 remained in the game.
Joel Embiid scored a game-high 27 points with 10 rebounds for Philadelpia and Long Island product Tobias Harris contributed 17 points as Doc Rivers and the Sixers (2-0) looked right at home at the empty Garden.
Before the game, Barrett had surmised that such emptiness at the World’s Most Famous Arena could work in the Knicks’ favor this season.
“Actually having no fans might be an advantage,” Barrett said. “I know if I was a competitor, coming into the Garden, with all those fans, I’d want to have a great game. So coming in there with no fans actually probably gives us an advantage that way, too.”
Barrett was looking to build on a strong individual performance Wednesday, in which he made his first nine shots and netted 20 of his 26 points before halftime. But the former Duke star clanked his first nine attempts and finished the first half with just four points on 1-for-11 shooting.
Robinson’s backcourt steal and open-floor dunk capped a 9-0 run and propelled the Knicks to a 45-40 lead midway through the second quarter.
The Sixers followed by netting the next 14 points, however, including seven from Embiid and 3-pointers by their other Long Island product, Danny Green, and Seth Curry en route to a 60-55 Philly lead at halftime.
Randle led the Knicks with 18 before intermission, with Burks following up his 22-point performance off the bench in his team debut Wednesday by adding 13 through two quarters.
The Knicks were outscored 26-14 in the third quarter, however, and they trailed by 17 (86-69) entering the final 12 minutes.
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