It’s beginning to feel a lot like last season for the New York Knicks, even if they continue to remain defiantly positive in the face of the most adversity they’ve had to endure all year.
Although the Knicks (16-19) retooled in a drastic way — adding five new players in the front court and just as many in back court during the offseason — New York is going through a slide that looks eerily similar to the one it suffered a season ago, when coming off of a franchise-worst 17-win season, the Knicks started a somewhat surprising 22-22, only to lose 11 of the next 12 games en route to a disappointing 32-50 campaign.
With a chance to get within a half-game of the sixth-place Milwaukee Bucks (18-16) in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, 10th-place New York had its most agonizing loss of the season, blowing a 16-point, third-quarter lead (and 14 points at the start of the fourth period), losing a 105-104 heartbreaker at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, on a well-defended, step-back, top-of-the-key, buzzer-beating jumper from budding star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who led the Bucks with 27 points and 13 rebounds.
Antetokounmpo’s shot wrote the postscript to a series of Knick calamities.
In addition to New York coughing up its biggest lead of the season in a loss, the defeat was the Knicks’ season-high sixth straight, ninth in 11 games and third consecutive at home, where New York had started a very solid 11-4 this season. It also marked only the third game in 17 this year that the Knicks lost when leading after three quarters.
Perhaps worst of all, after turning around a slow 3-6 start with an 11-4 hot streak (pushing New York’s record to a season-best 14-10), the Knicks — despite all of their roster changes, and the addition of new head coach Jeff Hornacek — find themselves with the same 16-19 mark they had after 35 games last season.
On the surface, that might sound very disheartening to someone like star forward Carmelo Anthony, who has been in New York for the Knicks’ 54-win, Atlantic Division winning season in 2012-13, when his team bottomed out two years later and for everything in between.
Yet Anthony — who scored a game-high 30 points, while grabbing 11 rebounds and post a season-high-tying seven assists — remained undeterred, believing things will soon turn around for New York.
“It was a tough night, kind of a tough pill to swallow, knowing the position we put ourselves in, to be up [16 points and still losing],” Anthony admitted. “The fight was there, the effort was there. It’s just a couple things we’ve gotta fix. I think we gave this one away and it’s a tough one to swallow.
“I think we’ve gotta continue kind of believing and being confident enough to know that we had won a lot of games playing the way that we played throughout most of this game tonight.”
Anthony especially won’t allow himself or his teammates to see their current losing streak through the lens of last year’s sharp downturn just after that season’s midpoint.
“We’re not gonna let anything kind of seeping into this locker room as far as negativity,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about last year or the year before. I know right now, we’re not going to allow ourselves to get down, especially with the guys that [are] on this team. We know how to react to situations like this. It’s just a matter of sometimes when things are not going your way, they’re not going your way. We’ve got to figure out a way to get out of that.”
Those sentiments were echoed by several other Knicks and head coach Jeff Hornacek.
“We’ve been together this whole season,” said starting shooting guard Courtney Lee. “It’s definitely frustrating. We don’t want to lose games… the most important thing is to continue to fight, to continue to stay together.”
Choosing to focus on the positives of what his team did against the Bucks, Hornacek said it’s imperative for his players, “Not to hang their heads.”
He added, “It’s tough to try and get out of a losing streak and then you lose a tough one like that, but the guys played well. We did a lot of things right. We moved the ball better, we played good defense [and] we helped each other out. They played as hard as they could. That’s all you could ask, that’s making strides.”
Hornacek also pointed to the positive contributions from forwards Lance Thomas (seven points, four rebounds while starting) and especially 27-year-old rookie Mindaugas Kuzminkas (career-high 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting, four rebounds and two steals in 19 minutes off the bench) in the absence of second-year forward, 20-point scorer Kristaps Porzingis, who missed his third straight game with a sore left Achilles tendon.
On the game’s final play, when Thomas held his ground and forced Antetokounmpo off of the right blocks (out of a time out), up to the top of the key, Hornacek said, “Lance played tough ‘D.’ Antetokounmpo made a tough shot.“
Anthony added, “I don’t think Lance could have played much better defense than what we played on that [play]… we could live with that.”
On Kuzminskas’ role filling in for Porzingis, Hornacek said, “I thought he did a nice job coming in there and having to fill some of the minutes that K.P. didn’t have.”
With the way New York had been struggling so severely on defense during their recent tailspin, the Knicks, even in defeat, felt buoyed by their better defensive effort.
While his offensive productive was both solid and helpful, Kuzminskas said, “I don’t think too much about [scoring] points, because right now, for our team, the most important [thing] is defense… [tonight], we played better defense than before. We’ll improve.”
Noting the Knicks’ improved approach in that regard, Anthony said, “We were much more aggressive on the defensive end. We had a different energy, a different mindset. We played differently tonight on the defensive end. As a result, our offense got to clicking. We started making shots.
“We know we can do it. I thought we did it for most of this game, [at least] a lot longer than we have over these past five, six games. It’s just a matter of having that mindset and sticking to the script.”
Otherwise dejected by the loss, starting point guard Derrick Rose (15 points, four assists, game-high five turnovers), who kept his answers short after the game, added, “I believe we gave [good] effort tonight. We played hard.”
Taking a pragmatic view, starting center Joakim Noah (eight points, game-highs of 16 rebounds and seven offensive boards), said, “We fought hard. The club’s going through adversity right now, there’s no question about it. Losing sucks, but we’ve just got to bounce back. Nobody’s gonna feel sorry for us… we’ve just to look at ourselves in the mirror. When you lose, you look at the things you can do better.”
Encouraged by New York’s play at each end of the floor — until a fateful fourth quarter, in which the Knicks were outscored, 32-17 (a period which Milwaukee began on a 14-2 run after New York broke a halftime tie with its own 10-1 spurt at the start third quarter) — Lee said, “The ball movement was a lot better, the defensive effort and intensity was a lot better, so we definitely showed that we’re capable of playing defense and [that] we’re a capable team.”
However, as evidenced by the Bucks’ overwhelming 27-4 edge in fast break points and Milwaukee going 22-for-31 at the foul line, where New York went 7-for-12, Lee also admitted the Knicks’ failure to “Get back in transition, keep [the Bucks] off the foul line and try to execute a little bit better.”
A natural assumption would be that a team trying to snap a growing losing streak would be a cause for even greater urgency in trying to hold onto a large lead and stop such a skid.
But Kuzminkas offered a different explanation, saying, “I think we still don’t have that killer instinct to [extend an already big lead] and finish the game. I think because of that streak, we have some kind of pressure on us. We put the pressure on ourselves.”
Hornacek, though, feels that New York simply needs to get back to what it was doing during the one earlier stretch when the Knicks were playing their best basketball of the season.
“We got off to a slow start, we were 3-6, then we won 11 out of 15 [with the type of] effort we had tonight,” he said. “If we continue to do that, we’re going to win games.
“We’ve just got to reiterate to the guys that’s how we want them to play. Things will take care of themselves if you just play that way.”
Yet, of late, that’s much easier said than done for New York, and it’s something that the Knicks have to return to sooner than later, before their season takes the same unrecoverable turn as last year.