On its face, this was another nondescript loss in a season full of them.
It followed a script that has been played out enough times to be cancelled, rebooted, and then cancelled again: the Knicks allow a team that should be dragging to out-energize them and take a sizable lead, only to realize too late that they need to up their effort level, and despite a valiant comeback attempt, they ultimately fall short.
With the Hornets having been blown out by 49 points in Indiana the night prior, you could almost see this 107-101 defeat coming. New York, after all, hasn't been above losing to any team in a season in which they are now tied for the third fewest wins in the NBA.
That's not what's important though, as realistically, they've been chasing the top spot in the lottery more than a playoff seed for months now (with tonight's result certainly helping the race towards the former).
No, tonight was important for other reasons entirely. Primarily, for the first time all season, we saw the Knicks close out a close game with their most prominent player on the bench. In his place was someone who has been ostracized and outcast essentially since opening night.
When Bobby Portis checked in for Julius Randle with just over two minutes left to go in the third quarter, the Knicks were down by 11 points. It wasn't an insurmountable lead, but as head coach Mike Miller put it afterwards, it came as the result of "inconsistent play" for large stretches of the game.
It wasn't hard to read Miller's emotions, either on the sideline during the game or when asked about it afterwards. He was someone who didn't feel like his team put forth what it took to win.
While never mentioning Randle specifically, it's hard not to wonder if he was one of the culprits on the coach's mind. When asked, he noted that his starting power forward had "a solid game" - 18 points, nine boards and two blocks would indicate as much - but was quick to add that he stayed with his closing group because they "had the energy that we needed." The implication, while not singling out Randle specifically, was palpable.
Part of that closing group was Allonzo Trier, a man who hasn't opened games, closed games, or done much of anything in between since the season began.
Continuing the recent tradition of maligned Knick guards having big outings in Charlotte (Trey Burke had a career high 42 here two years ago, followed by Emmanuel Mudiay's career best 34 last season), Trier entered the game with just over four minutes to go in the third and never checked out. He proceeded to score 15 points in 16 minutes and nearly led the Knicks' comeback, closing the gap to two late before the Hornets pulled away, aided by some costly Elfrid Payton turnovers to seal the deal.
Of Trier, Miller was noncommittal when asked what tonight's game meant for his place in the rotation moving forward, but did say that Trier "used his break and really worked on his game."
Trier agreed, but only partially, noting in the locker room afterwards that he's been putting in the work and staying ready all season long. Reports since training camp universally indicate that he has indeed been keeping himself ready.
Just like with Randle's absence, whether Trier's emergence is a sign of things to come remains to be seen.
To be clear: tonight was nothing close to a full-on youth movement. Damyean Dotson yet again didn't see the court, while Kevin Knox played just 23 minutes. RJ Barrett and Dennis Smith Jr., each of whom struggled with their shot, also played only 21 minutes apiece, while Elfrid Payton and Bobby Portis combined for 50.
Portis especially earned his time, scoring 10 straight Knick points between the third and fourth quarters and finishing with 17 on just 11 shots. He continues to form a nice inside/outside big man combo with the other major Knick bright spot of the night, Mitchell Robinson.
For as breathtaking as his lobs are to behold, Robinson's defense continues to make the biggest strides, sometimes with highlight reel blocks (he ended with three on the night) but often with subtler improvements to footwork and positioning. This progress helped him finish with just one foul in 30 minutes of action that also contained 16 rebounds, including seven on the offensive glass.
As the Knicks inch closer to the three quarters mark of the season, fans will continue to have bright spots to enjoy. Robinson and Trier took up the mantle tonight as RJ Barrett and Dennis Smith Jr. had versus Houston. All of these performances count, even if the games themselves matter little.
The question remains though of how much more time the kids will receive down the stretch. The answer may come as soon as Sunday, when new President Leon Rose is officially slated to take charge of the team.
With Mills having been fired weeks ago and Allan Houston noticeably with the team on this road trip, one has to wonder if the turn towards young players and away from veterans - the ones signed in a misbegotten series of win-now summer moves - has only just begun.
We'll all find out soon enough. Tomorrow in Philly and Saturday against Chicago are New York's last games before Leon Rose takes center stage.
It seems like before he even steps to that podium, change may already by afoot.