NEW YORK — Last season, the New York Knicks rode an impressive 31-10 home record to a 54-win season and their first division title in 19 years.
Just 18 days into the current campaign, the Knicks (3-6) are on a Madison Square Garden losing streak that already has them halfway to the number of home losses as they had all of last year, following a 110-90 defeat to an Atlanta Hawks (6-4) team that New York beat on the road only two games earlier.
Learning from that game, Atlanta got a lot of players involved, as eight of the 10 Hawks who played on Saturday night scored in double figures, including all five starters, led by 16 points from point guard Jeff Teague.
Forward Cartier Martin, whose eight points nearly gave Atlanta a ninth double-digit scorer, headed a Hawks bench that held a 43-26 scoring edge.
The Knicks, meanwhile, who entered the contest 3-0 when leading after the opening quarter, but 0-5 when not this year, lost for the first time after taking a first-quarter lead, thanks largely to a 26-9 game-deciding, late fourth-quarter spurt, during which backup point guard Shelvin Mack (12 points, 12 assists in 24:23) recorded all but one of his seven fourth-quarter assists.
Mack’s solid effort made him the first Hawk since Eddie Johnson, in 1984, to post at least a dozen points and as many assists off the bench since Eddie Johnson in 1984.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer praised Mack, saying, “Shelvin individually, off the bench, was really great. It’s a testament to his professionalism. He’s ready and each time we’ve used him, he’s come in and given us a boost.”
On the flip side, head coach Mike Woodson said, “We didn’t play with any purpose tonight. I have to take responsibility on that.”
Woodson’s club sits in last place of the Atlantic Division it won last year, tied with Brooklyn (3-6), but is only a game behind first-place Philadelphia (5-6).
“Nobody is running away with it in the division,” acknowledged Woodson. “But games are beginning to slip away, especially at home. If this was on the road, I wouldn’t be as concerned.”
What bothers Woodson the most is New York’s consistent lack of energy and focus.
“I thought they just played harder than we played,” Woodson said of the Hawks. “We just didn’t compete with them and I thought that was the difference in the game… I think we are dependent on our offense and not really thinking on the defensive end.”
Star forward Carmelo Anthony (game-high 23 points, team-high 12 rebounds) echoed the same sentiments.
“It ain’t got nothin’ to do with making shots or missing shots, we’re just not doing it on the other end. We’re not defending, we’re not giving no effort, we’re not playing right now.”
Asked if the Knicks’ team chemistry is different this season compared to last year, with some of the offseason changes made by New York, Anthony said, “I hate talking about last year because last year is over with and this year is a new year. So, I really don’t know what it is… as a team, we’re not getting it done.”
Last year’s NBA scoring champion, Anthony leads the Knicks in scoring again and ranks fourth in the league with 25.8 points per game this year. But he’s been getting little help from New York’s second scoring option from a year ago, guard J.R. Smith, who after missing the first five games of the season due to a drug-related suspension, is averaging just 9.8 points per game on awful 22.6 percent shooting.
Finishing with just seven points, Smith, who attacked the basket often during his strong second half of the season last year (which helped him win the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award) shot just 3-of-18 while attempting no free throws.
Leading, 82-77, the Hawks, who entered the night with a league-leading 1.94 assist-to-turnover ratio, were only at 1.09 (12 assists, 11 turnovers) in that category until Mack took advantage of New York’s continuing problem with allowing opposing point guards to break down its defense.
Although the Knicks controlled the boards, 48-36 overall, including 19-5 on the offensive glass, and dominated in second chance points, 19-5, they made 10 fewer field goals (44-34), despite taking a dozen (90-78) more shots, as Atlanta (season-high 56.4 percent) was considerably more efficient from the floor than New York (37.8).
A 3-pointer by forward Kyle Korver (15 points) extended his streak of games with a made trey to 83 straight (six games behind Dana Barros’ NBA record). It also capped an 11-4 run that erased the Knicks’ largest lead (four points) and put the Hawks up, 15-12.
New York answered with a 10-3 run to lead, 22-18, before ending a first quarter that featured eight ties with a 26-24 lead.
Five straight points by Mack, though, ended a 17-3 spurt that put Atlanta up for good, 41-29.
Battling back, the Knicks cut that deficit to only three points on as many occasions, before the Hawks scored the final four points of the half to lead, 54-47, at intermission.
After Atlanta, which outscored New York, 30-21, in both the second and fourth quarters, pushed its lead to 11 points three different times to start the third period, the Knicks used a 14-9 run to get within 74-69 on a 3-pointer from starting guard Iman Shumpert (11 points, seven rebounds).
However, consecutive 3-pointers from Martin and reserve forward Mike Scott (11 points), before the buzzer, pushed the margin to 80-69 as the period ended. Typifying New York’s defensive problems, Shumpert initially ran toward Scott then inexplicably toward the basket, leaving Scott alone to make the shot.
Reserve forward Amar’e Stoudemire (five points in 14 minutes), reduced to a shell of the all-star he was during his first year in New York three seasons ago, celebrated his 31st birthday with a dunk on the Knicks’ first trip of the final quarter, before he kept his team within 84-79 on a driving layup nearly three minutes later.
Before and after that basket, Mack assisted on uncontested layups by Mexican reserve forward Gustavo Ayon (10 points, five rebounds), which ignited a 14-2 run over the next four minutes, as the Hawks increased their edge to 98-81 on a layup by starting center Al Horford, with 4:38 left.
Atlanta’s lead reached as much as 110-88 on another Horford basket and Mack assist in the final seconds.
By that point, all Anthony could do was stand by the Knicks’ bench, staring in disbelief.
“I’m not going to do it by myself, I don’t want to do it by myself, we’ve got to do it as a team,” he said. “We keep digging ourselves deeper and deeper. I know it’s early in the season, but… at the rate this is going, we’re going to be in too deep of a hole to dig out… it’s a nasty feeling right now… we’ve got to turn this around, quickly… It ain’t got nothin’ to do with X’s and O’s on the basketball court. We’re not getting it done from an effort standpoint. It’s like we’re not even trying right now.“
Perhaps getting away from the Garden and back into their road blue uniforms could help, as New York travels to Detroit (3-5) on Tuesday night. The Knicks, who won their first 10 home games last season, are just 1-5 at home this year, including 1-2 in their regular home white threads, and 0-4 in their new alternate orange uniforms, but 2-0 while wearing blue.
They might as well hope that the blue attire and hitting the road works, because to this point in the season, little else has.