The New York Knicks had reason to believe they had become much better than what they showed during their season-opening 29-point loss in Cleveland six weeks ago.
And in a larger sense, perhaps they are.
But they certainly gave the defending champion, Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers (15-5) no cause to consider that notion after suffering another drubbing to the NBA’s title holders, in a wire-to-wire 126-94 thrashing at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
“It looks like we’re the same as the first game of the season,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said half-jokingly, in addressing his team’s growth, at least relative to New York’s first meeting of the season against Cleveland, if not overall since that time.
Entering the evening as the hottest team in the East, with four straight wins and nine victories in their prior 12 games, while sporting a 9-3 home record (with eight wins in their nine previous games on their own floor), facing Cleveland was somewhat of a barometer game for the Knicks (12-10).
Well, mostly, if you discount the fact that New York won in Miami the night before as Cleveland rested and that the Knicks played without starting point guard Derrick Rose, who sat out while recovering from back spasms.
Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity for New York to show the Cavaliers and a national ESPN television audience how far they had come since opening night.
Instead, that chance was turned into a showcase for Cleveland’s 3-point shooters (who went 22-for-40 from behind the arc) and the Cavaliers’ Big Three of Kyrie Irving (game-high 28 points and six assists in 30 minutes), LeBron James (25 points on just 10 shots, seven assists and six rebounds in 32 minutes) and Kevin Love (21 points).
Before James and Love sat out the entire fourth quarter and Irving, all but 1:50 of the period, that trio had outscored the Knicks by themselves, 69-65, over the first three frames.
Things got out of hand early, as a James dunk gave the Cavaliers a 24-13 lead prior to the midpoint of the opening quarter before a pair of Irving free throws finished a 20-4 game-turning spurt which put the Cleveland up, 34-17.
Although New York closed the period on a 9-2 run, to get within 10 points, the 36 points the Cavaliers scored by then were most the Knicks had allowed in a first quarter at the Garden this season and the second-most (behind 38 given up in Charlotte, on Nov. 26) New York surrendered in a first period this year.
While the Knicks couldn’t defend the perimeter, they also had trouble getting back in transition, to the tune of a 23-8 edge in fast break points for the Cavaliers, including 9-3 in the first quarter and a similar 9-2 advantage in the next period.
With a chance to keep rolling and to make a statement against one of the league’s best, New York got within eight points on two occasions late in the first half, but the Knicks were outscored 9-2 to end the half, and trailed 63-48 at the break.
Rather than being able to show some fight at the start of the second half, New York allowed the first eight points after halftime as Cleveland’s lead quickly ballooned to 71-48. The Knicks never got closer than 21 points thereafter and trailed by as much as 34 on a fourth-quarter 3-pointer by former Knick first-round draft pick Iman Shumpert (14 points), who like Irving, shot 4-of-6 from behind the arc, despite embarrassingly missing a second-quarter dunk all alone, on a fast break.
That moment was far less humiliating than the way the Cavaliers torched the Knicks’ defense.
Cleveland’s 22 3s were the most ever allowed by New York. The Knicks’ previous high was 19 3-pointers given up at Golden State, on Mar. 14, 2015, in a blowout loss by almost the same score (125-94).
“We had strategies,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We just didn’t get out to them quick enough.”
Shooting guard Courtney Lee (15 points) added, “Our close-out efforts weren’t there… and we paid the ultimate price tonight.”
Things came so easily for the Cavaliers that James and Irving were attempting the water bottle challenge (a new craze which has swept social media, in which people post videos of flipping water bottles, making them land upright) during live game action in the final minute.
Conversely, the disrespected Knicks were simply all wet.
Besides missing Rose, the fatigue of playing in Miami and arriving back in New York on an early morning flight seemed to be significant factors in producing a repeat of what took place earlier in Cleveland.
“Maybe, but that’s not an excuse,” reserve forward Justin Holiday (three points, four rebounds) said on whether he and his teammates were too tired to keep up with the Cavaliers.
However, Holiday did acknowledge Rose’s absence as a detriment, saying, “I think Derrick not being out there with us was a factor for us, for sure, but at the same time, we have guys that are there to step up and take care of business. It just didn’t work out for us [tonight].”
Lee added on Rose, “That hurts us. He’s one of our go-to guys, he one of our facilitators and he’s a guy that’s always aggressive on the defensive end.”
One bright spot for New York was Hornacek saying he doesn’t expect Rose to be out for long. “He landed wrong a couple times (in Miami)… which might have jarred him, but we think he’ll be fine,” he said.
Hoping his team would show more resolve in the face of adversity, Hornacek said of the Cavaliers, “They came out knowing we had a game last night and they wanted to attack us in the beginning, and they did… they’re a tough team to play, especially if you’re not at your best.
“We didn’t have the same energy they did. Maybe they’re quicker and stronger than we are, I don’t know, but it sure looked like that out there.
“It’s a tough one. [The Cavaliers] were here yesterday, we had to play our guys pretty much [regular minutes] last night to [win] in Miami. I think K.P. (budding star forward Kristaps Porzingis) told me he got in at 3:20 [a.m.] by the time he got back to his house. So again, when you’re playing a great team like Cleveland, you’ve got to play at your full energy, your full effort and you’ve got to play well, and we didn’t have it.”
The Knicks also weren’t able to get anything going for star forward Carmelo Anthony, who finished with a season-low eight points (more than 14 below his season average), while taking just nine shots (less than half of the 19.6 attempts per game he’s taken this year) in under 24 minutes (more than nine under his season average).
“[The Cavaliers] did a good job when [Anthony] went in the post area,” Hornacek explained. “They came and doubled right away.”
Although many outside the Knicks’ locker room viewed their second meeting with Cleveland as a heat-check game, New York didn’t feel the same internally, or at least wouldn’t openly admit it as the Knicks start preparing for a five-game, nine-day Western swing beginning on Friday.
“We didn’t put much emphasis on it,” Lee said, while admitting, “We don’t want to lose like this. It’s definitely embarrassing getting beat like this, especially on our home court. So the next thing we can do is just make sure we take care of this road trip, win as much as possible and get on another run.”
While New York will play the best current team in the NBA (Golden State) on the trip, the other four opponents each have losing records, ranging from the 10-14 Los Angeles Lakers to 6-16 Phoenix.
However, Hornacek cautioned, “You go one the road, no wins are easy. We’ve got to come out there with intensity every game no matter who the opponent is and be more on the attack rather than back on our heels, and make smart plays.”
As one of the team’s primary leaders, Anthony did his part to put another disappointing setback against the Cavaliers in its proper perspective.
“We just want to chalk this one up as a tough night, a bad night, and put this one behind us, and get ready for this road trip,” he said.
“We’ll learn from this. We’ll get better. I don’t want to let this game linger around when we have an opportunity to go on the road and do something good.
“I was just explaining to the guys after the game that it’s a bigger picture for us. It’s something that we’re working towards. I guess it was just a little bump in the road, a game that we didn’t play our best. Cleveland played extremely well… I keep saying we want to put this one behind us, but we also want to learn from this and look forward.”
That’s something that will be easier to do for a while, as the Knicks can play their next 29 games without having to face the team that is once again setting a lofty, perhaps unattainable standard for the rest of the Eastern Conference, before Cleveland will make a return trip to the Garden the night before Super Bowl Sunday, on Feb. 4.