By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – A game between the struggling New York Knicks and Washington Wizards would barely have registered back in the United States but transported across the Atlantic it stole the London sporting spotlight on Thursday.
With none of the capital’s seven Premier League soccer clubs in action, a sell-out 19,000 crowd crammed into the 02 Arena to witness the NBA’s ninth regular-season international game to be held in London.
The NBA’s biggest names were not in town but still the crowd were treated to a nailbiter as the Knicks, who have won only 10 games all season, suffered an agonising 101-100 loss, their fifth straight defeat.
Wizards All-Star shooting guard Bradley Beale ended with a game-high 26 points as his team clawed back an 89-77 deficit going into the fourth quarter.
The Knicks hit the wall in the last quarter but when Congo-born Emmanuel Mudiay sank a majestic three-pointer it looked as though David Fizdale’s team would be able to catch their early-morning flight with a morale-boosting win.
A shot-clock violation gave the Wizards the ball back with three seconds left though and on the restart Thomas Bryant’s attempt at laying the ball in from Beale’s assist was blocked by Knicks’ Allonzo Trier, who wildly celebrated what he thought was a game-winning deflection.
After a video review, however, Trier was called for goal-tending and Knicks’ hearts sank.
The Knicks’ cause was not helped by the absence of their Turkish player Enes Kanter, who skipped the game in London due to concerns about his safety.
The 26-year-old centre has been an outspoken critic of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his human rights record and was indicted by a Turkish court last year on charges of belonging to an armed terrorist group, which he denies.
Kanter said he had been receiving death threats because of his support for U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, wanted in Turkey on suspicion of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016. Gulen denies the accusation.
The Wizards’ Otto Porter Jr. said it was a satisfying feeling to get the win after getting off to a poor start.
“We came out here with a must-win on our mind and we didn’t start the way we wanted to but we finished it,” he said, as the Wizards picked up a sixth win in nine games to boost their playoff hopes.
“First time in London and we got the ‘W’ so it feels so much better.”
London has become a hub for American sports leagues branching out into a hungry European market.
The NFL will play four regular games there in 2019 having staged three sold-out Wembley fixtures last year and in June the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will play the first regular-season MLB game in Europe at the London Stadium.
Silver said playing NBA games in London’s O2 was just like being at home, but said they were looking seriously at Paris.
“I’m told I’m not allowed to break news today, but yes, it is possible,” he said.
“It is something we are looking very closely at, and that is playing a regular-season game in Paris for next season.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)