NEW YORK — When New York Knicks team president Phil Jackson fired the first head coach he hired three weeks ago, one of the several reasons he gave for dismissing Derek Fisher was the former coach’s inability to keep his team from starting games slowly.
Well, not much has changed under interim head coach Kurt Rambis.
That problem reached new heights at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, as the Miami Heat (33-26) got the jump on the struggling Knicks (25-36) in every quarter while handing New York its fourth wire-to-wire defeat of the season, in a 98-81 rout.
Normally, when it comes to starting poorly, it’s mainly the opening quarter that dooms the Knicks. And each time the Heat started a quarter on a big run, New York responded with a strong close to each period over the first three quarters. But continually coming out flat and uninspired will eventually catch up to even the best teams, let alone the talent-deficient Knicks.
Appropriately, former Knick star Amar’e Stoudemire — who was playing in his first game at the Garden as a member of the visiting team since 2009 — scored the first bucket before Miami added the next six points and forced a Rambis time out with a 13-2 lead after a little over four minutes.
New York ended the quarter on a 17-10 run to get within 23-19.
But the rollercoaster continued over the final three periods until the Knicks finally didn’t have one last response in them to end the game.
Miami began the second quarter on a 14-4 spurt before New York answered with a 16-7 stretch to trail at halftime, 44-39.
However, the Heat started the third period on an 18-10 run prior to the Knicks ending the frame on a 16-6 spurt to stay within 69-65.
Finally, Miami commenced the last quarter on a 13-5 run, from which the Knicks never recovered, as that stretch simply turned into a dominant 29-16 period and a convincing, runaway victory for the Heat.
“It seemed like they were sprinting and we were jogging,” reserve forward Lance Thomas said. “Uphill battles are always the hardest ones to fight. We’ve got to be better at that.”
For more than half of the season, New York was able to get away with not being ready at the outset of games or certain quarters, while treading water at 22-22.
By that point, the Knicks had won back-to-back games seven times, even with four different three-game losing streaks mixed in over that time.
Yet, since then, New York has failed to win consecutive games, while losing 14 of 17 games and realistically falling out of the Eastern Conference playoff chance.
And it’s starting slowly which has especially plagued the Knicks, to the point which they’re a completely different team depending on how they start the opening quarters and first halves of games.
When leading after the first quarter, New York is 16-13, but only 9-23 when not leading at that point.
The Knicks are actually a very good 20-9 when holding a halftime lead, but a drastically different 5-27 when trailing at intermission.
Loss No. 27 when leading at the half stung a little extra with a bunch of Heat fans breaking out into loud “Let’s go Heat!” chants in New York’s own building.
“How could you not hear that?” star forward Carmelo Anthony asked rhetorically, before adding, “You’re home, you don’t want to hear that. I’m assuming that it was all Miami Heat fans. I want to believe that, I want to think that. I don’t want to believe that it was New York Knicks fans. I was surprised, I was very surprised.”
Two areas that weren’t surprising were ones which have directly impacted most of the Knicks’ bad starts — insufficient guard play and keeping opposing teams out of the paint.
Sure enough, Miami’s back court of Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic dominated New York’s, of Jose Calderon and Langston Galloway, 39-14, while the Heat crushed the Knicks in the paint, 54-30.
“We talked, pregame, about [having to do] a much better job of stopping penetration and controlling the paint,” head coach Kurt Rambis said. “But clearly, we didn’t do a good job of that tonight… we did [that] intermittently, but we just couldn’t sustain it.”
Thomas added, “We’ve got to have more trust in each other defensively. We have to know when somebody’s behind [us], [we] need to keep our guy in front of [us], and [have] a little bit more pride individually and collectively.”
Offensively, center Robin Lopez said, “I think we’ve got to have a lot more confidence in ourselves out on the floor and confidence in ourselves to make plays.”
Although it may have seemed like it during the final quarter, and over through many instances over the past 17 games, both Lopez and Thomas insist that the Knicks won’t quit.
“Nobody likes losing,” Lopez said. “We have a lot of competitive players and there are a lot of competitive players in the NBA, and no none of [us] like losing. I think our [younger] players have done a commendable job of staying focused and working. I think it’s just a matter of all of us applying that work over to the games.”
Thomas added, “Nobody likes to lose. I don’t like to lose, my team doesn’t like to lose, so it’s frustrating, but adversity shows your true colors. We’re going to continue to fight and it’ll be obvious if people aren’t fighting.”
It just might be too late, though, to fight for the playoffs, as far too many slow starts may have already written an early end to the Knicks’ season.