Hey, Knicks fans: At least you’re not the Maple Leafs

Picture it: Two 3-1 series with wildly different story lines. We’ll see about the outcomes.
Picture it: Two 3-1 series with wildly different story lines. We’ll see about the outcomes.
Illustration: AP; Getty (Getty Images)

How bad was the Toronto Maple Leafs’ collapse? It’s better to be a Knicks fan right now.

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The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t just collapse in their first-round series, blowing a 3-1 lead to the Montreal Canadiens. As always, the other side of a collapse is a comeback, and the Habs came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Leafs.

The New York Knicks have a lot in common with the Leafs. They’re in their league’s most important market, haven’t won a championship since the Vietnam War, and have been to the conference finals only once in the 21st century, which is now more than a fifth of the way complete.

What the Knicks don’t have is a 3-1 lead in their current first-round series. They face a 3-1 deficit to the Atlanta Hawks, themselves not exactly the paragon of success in the league. The Hawks haven’t won a title since 1958, when they were still in St. Louis and were one of the best-shooting teams in the NBA… at 39 percent for the season… in a league where there weren’t three-pointers yet. No wonder Bob Pettit averaged 17.4 rebounds per game, which was third in the league behind Bill Russell and Maurice Stokes then, but would have led the NBA easily at any point in the last 25 years.

There are big differences between hockey and basketball. The NBA has had 13 successful comebacks from 3-1 down in its history, while it’s happened 14 times in the NHL since 2000. For their part, the Knicks have never done it — the closest they came was forcing a Game 7 after going down 3-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals.

Even with those differences, there was a moment in Steve Dangle’s post-Game 7 Leafs Fan Reaction video that stood out.

“There’s no sports team on Earth like this one,” Dangle said. “None.”

It’s true, but only because of the Anna Karenina principle. As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Leafs’ brand of pain is unique to the Leafs, but it’s on a spectrum.

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In not even advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1967, there’s an element of what the Chicago Cubs went through in not making the World Series from 1945 until 2016. The Leafs have won two division titles in the past 40 years, and have playoff collapses that can be easily identified by their nicknames — like, “It Was 4-1” and “The High Stick.” That’s straight out of the Cleveland Browns’ playbook with “The Drive” and “The Fumble.” And then there’s suffering under notorious owners, playing in an iconic setting, and all of the other stuff that the Leafs share with the Knicks, including devoted fans who sometimes come to wonder what the point of all of this is, and whether it’s worth it.

That’s the biggest difference right now between the Leafs and the Knicks. Neither one is winning a championship this year (even if the Knicks somehow rally against Atlanta, they’re not going all the way), both have at least some reason to believe that a title in the foreseeable future is at least possible, and both would set off the celebration of a lifetime if that ever does happen. The difference is what the end of this season will feel like.

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For the Leafs, it’s another existential crisis. For the Knicks, what’s happening now is special, and the kind of thing that hasn’t happened for Toronto in a long time. The Knicks even making the playoffs this season was unexpected, and while watching Julius Randle win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award isn’t at all the same as watching a title, Knicks fans have gotten joy out of this season that the team hasn’t provided in years.

People in New York have fallen in love with the Knicks. Not just Randle, but the rising star R.J. Barrett, but particularly the role players who nobody had any expectations for but became vital parts of the first Knicks playoff team in eight years. Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks, Taj Gibson, Nerlens Noel, and Derrick Rose won’t be part of the equation when the Knicks are a championship team, but they’ve all won over the fanbase. The Knicks are going to fall short, but they’ve exceeded expectations so greatly, and awakened passion that’s been dormant so long, it’s impossible to even be upset. Well, it’s impossible to be that upset. Watching Trae Young’s dorky attempts at trash talk without any comeuppance, that’s upsetting. But this will be a season that Knicks fans remember fondly.

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The Leafs haven’t given that to Toronto since… 1999? Maybe 2013 could have been that way, with a first playoff appearance in nine years, if it hadn’t been in a lockout-shortened season and hadn’t turned into the It Was 4-1 collapse against the Bruins? And the good news/bad news for Toronto is that they’ve got Auston Matthews long-term, but as long as they do, anything short of a Cup is going to be massively disappointing.

The Canadiens haven’t won since 1993 themselves. But now, they’ve also got this year, the year that they came back from 3-1 down to beat the Leafs. The Knicks are set to try the same to beat Atlanta, but even if they don’t, this year has brought something to Knicks fans that the Leafs, for all their similar suffering, really don’t have a way to deliver.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.