Whether figuratively hitting a wall or just going AWOL, the New York Knicks have become a mess at the moment.
Point guard Derrick Rose went missing beforehand, his teammates were a no-show on the court and star forward Carmelo Anthony failed to show up afterwards.
And that wasn’t even the sum total of the things that went wrong for New York (17-21) on a miserable day and night that saw one of the NBA’s worst road teams lead the Knicks by as much as 29 points midway through the final quarter en route to an easy 110-96 win at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
Earlier in the day, the team New York will play next, on the road (the Philadelphia 76ers, on Wednesday night) — one night before it hosts Rose’s old team (the Chicago Bulls, the next night) for the first time since the suddenly embattled guard joined the Knicks in the offseason — gave a 10-day contract to guard Chasson Randle, who had been lighting up the NBA Developmental League for New York’s affiliate, the Westchester Knicks.
Later on, Anthony, who is normally at his locker for postgame interviews, wasn’t there following the game, after he picked up two technical fouls during a time out and was issued his NBA-leading third ejection of the season with the Knicks down 19 points late in the third quarter.
Less than a minute later, reserve center Kyle O’Quinn was likewise sent away early after being called for a Flagrant 2 foul after he gave a dangerous shove from behind, on a fast break, which sent New Orleans Pelicans star center Anthony Davis into the first few rows behind the basket.
Right after O’Quinn’s ejection, Davis hit a pair of free throws to push the Pelicans’ lead to 24 points with 1:16 left in the period before he immediately left the game with a minor hip injury that resulted from the hard foul (he was later deemed to be okay health wise).
With game-highs of 40 points (on 14-of-22 shooting) and 18 rebounds (in 29 minutes), Davis joined Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Kevin Love as the only NBA players in the past three decades to record at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in five straight games.
That stretch began with New Orleans’ 12-point home win over New York on Dec. 30 — when the Knicks had a trio (Anthony, forward Kristaps Porzingis and Rose) of 20-point scorers — and continued with three consecutive losses before the Pelicans (15-24) earned a season series sweep against New York at the Garden and only their fifth win in 18 road games this season.
Besides having no answer for Davis, the Knicks — who lost for the eighth time in nine games and for the 11th time in 14 contests, to go from a season-best 14-10 to a season-worst four games under .500 — had as much trouble locating New Orleans’ 3-point shooters in the opening half as they did in determining Rose’s whereabouts.
Shortly after Rose was listed on the official starting lineup, only to be a late scratch without contacting the team (with reports surfacing that he may have returned home, to Chicago, to deal with a family issue), the Pelicans torched the Knicks for 5-of-9 shooting from behind the arc while building a 29-26 lead after the opening quarter, before making five of six 3s in the next period, to take a 60-51 halftime lead.
“Obviously a lot of focus goes down low to Davis,” said reserve rookie guard Ron Baker, who played a career-high 25 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter, with Rose out and the game out of hand early. “Looking at him, we didn’t do a good job of getting back in transition. Some of those 3s were on the guards, trying to match up. They have good shooters and we weren’t able to close out to them.”
New Orleans’ dominating third quarter grew the margin to 91-66 heading into the final period, marking the fifth time in six games that New York — which dropped its fourth straight home game following an 11-4 start at MSG — allowed over 90 points through three quarters after doing so just twice over its first 32 games this season.
“Defense is a major key in this league,” Baker said. “With those numbers [of] late, it basically shows how our games have been. That’s something we’ve got to work on and get better at… it does start individually, but the game has five players [on the court] for a reason. We’ve got to build that trust with one another and rely on one another at times when things go bad on the defensive end. If we can do that… we’ll be a good defensive team.”
New York’s slide is reminiscent of the Knicks’ 32-win season getting away from them last year after a more promising 22-22 start. However, Porzingis (who was held to just nine points on 3-of-13 shooting in 24 minutes) believes that this season doesn’t have to end like last year’s if his team can solve its glaring defensive woes.
“I feel like this year, if we can get the defense right, that can fix a lot of problems for us,” he said. “The defensive end can give us some sort of positive energy on offense.
“Offensively, we’re struggling as well, but we know that’s not the big problem. Right now, we can’t go lower [defensively]. We’re in a tough spot right now, but we can only go up from now.
“I think the effort is there. We are trying. We’re playing so bad, that we’re trying to give everything we have. It’s just, we’re not doing the right things and [opponents’ offenses] are just picking us apart.”
Overshadowing the Knicks’ latest dreadful performance (which came on the heels of a similar blowout loss in Indiana on Saturday night) was of course, Rose’s unexcused absence, which left his team in the dark and caused widespread speculation on a number of different levels.
Questions — ranging from concern over Rose’s safety, to whether he might be dealing with a new issue related to sexual assault charges (for which he was cleared during the preseason), to whether the 28-year-old, former league MVP and free agent might be trying to force his way onto a contending team by the February trade deadline, to whether he is simply unhappy over his lack of usage by head coach Jeff Hornacek down the stretch of games recently — were posed on social media before, during and after the game.
With regard to that latest inference, Hornacek said there was no issue concerning Rose and playing time, while not offering much else on the situation, even giving a half-hearted response of, “Sure,” which seemed more like a blind guess than a conviction as to whether Rose would return to play in New York’s next two games over the ensuing three nights.
“Right now we don’t have information to give you anything,” Hornacek added. “That’s just going to have to wait until we hear something from Derrick himself… everything will be clear later on. We want to respect whatever he’s going through.”
Rose’s backup, Brandon Jennings (team-high 20 points, four assists, two turnovers, five rebounds), said, “We haven’t heard anything. I haven’t heard anything. I found out 40 minutes before the game that I was going to start. I just don’t know anything.”
Starting center Joakim Noah, however, said he was in contact with Rose after the game. He confirmed that Rose was “okay” but had nothing to provide on the reason(s) for Rose’s disappearance.
With all of their recent troubles, playing without Rose only added to the Knicks’ list of troubles.
Jennings said the news on Rose affected the team “a lot,” while Porzingis said, “We obviously missed Derrick, but… it’s tough right now.”
Porzingis added, “We all feel bad with what’s going on. [New York] is the biggest stage there is and we’re just not performing at the level we should. So we’re all frustrated but we can’t give up.
“The mindset is every game is life and death, basically, for us. We’ve got to give our everything at this point. You can feel that frustration. We are trying to do the right thing, we are trying to play the right way, but it’s just not coming together. That’s what’s frustrating about it.”
Noah added, “Everybody’s frustrated. We should be frustrated.”
Yet despite those feelings, the Knicks remain positive.
“We always play with confidence, but our chemistry right now is just lagging a little bit,” Baker explained. “With this type of adversity, it’s important that we stay close to one another [and be] tight-knit… it’s just a tough time. A lot of teams go through this. Hopefully, we can buckle down and this week and in the following weeks to come and come together.”
Porzingis added, “We can’t give in. We’ve just got to keep trying to find solutions for this and get out of this. We’ve been trying to figure out as a group, what to do better, and how to do better, and it’s not working right now. We’re going to keep trying, and hopefully, it’ll come together at some point.”
And if that happens, maybe the Knicks’ point guard will decide to be a part of it.