In an age of alternative facts and fake news, New York Knicks fans have come to know it as the “fake comeback.”
It’s when the Knicks (22-30) lack the earlier–game effort, intensity, execution (or sometimes, all three) to stay within a reasonable striking distance — while digging a huge hole for themselves — before storming back, only to lose by a respectable margin.
While Knicks fans appreciate their team not quitting, a loss is still a loss, and the phenomenon of the fake comeback may soon embody New York’s season.
The Knicks’ latest faux rally came on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, as New York cut a 27-point, late third-quarter deficit to just five points in the final minute before succumbing, 111-104, to the defending champion and NBA Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers (34-15).
“It’s on the starters to give us a good push,” said reserve center Kyle O’Quinn (seven points, four rebounds in 12 minutes). “That’s been one of our things all year… the margin came down and it looked good in the final score, but we know they had the momentum the whole game.”
Although starting point guard Derrick Rose sat out, the Knicks got no sympathy from the Cavaliers, who were without Rose’s considerably better counterpart, Kyrie Irving.
More than capable of doing so, LeBron James filled in as Cleveland’s primary distributor, with a team-high 10 assists, to go along with a team-best 32 points on 12-for-20 shooting. James (4-for-8 from 3-point range) was one of a trio of Cavaliers to make four shots from the behind the arc, joining forwards Kevin Love (23 points; 4-for-7 from 3-point range) and ex-Knick Channing Frye (14 points; 4-for-8 on 3s).
James also gave his mother Gloria (who gave birth to James at 16 years old and raised him as a single parent) yet another proud moment for a birthday present one day early, as his right wing jumper over guard Courtney Lee (17 points on 7-for-11 shooting), with 6:51 left in the second quarter gave Cleveland a 45-31 lead and made one of the game’s best players of all-time (at 32 years and 36 days) the youngest ever to reach 28,000 career points.
Thrust into the starting lineup in Rose’s absence, usual reserve point guard Brandon Jennings (team-highs of 23 points and 10 assists, and just one turnover in 42 minutes) not only filled in adequately, but was a major spark in leading New York’s rally, making eight of 10 shots, before missing his last three.
Most of Jennings’ scoring came from 3-point range, where he made six of eight attempts while his teammates collectively made the same amount of 3s in 23 tries.
Jennings and Lee — who together, outscored the Cavaliers’ starting backcourt, 40-10 — and reserve forward Willy Hernangomez (16 points on 7-of-10 shooting), helped the Knicks save face after Cleveland had earlier handed New York its two worst losses of the season by a combined point total (61) that eclipsed the highest-ever over/under (59) for a Super Bowl in Sunday’s Super Bowl LI.
On 17 fewer shots, Jennings (the Knicks’ fifth-leading scorer) nearly matched the combined scoring output of the Knicks’ top two scorers, forwards Carmelo Anthony (17 points on 6-for-20 shooting) and Kristaps Porzingis (nine points on 3-of-10 shooting).
“I just tried to push the pace, try to get easy buckets, but I think we tried to make our run a little bit too late. We couldn’t get stops… [and] it seemed like every time we were trying to make a run, they hit a big 3 or something.”
Believing New York needs to play at a faster pace, Jennings added, “When we’re in the half-court, we just get stagnant and everybody’s just watching, [and] the only way we’re going to play fast is if we get stops, too… we just need to play hard and play with effort. Who cares what the score is, just play hard. That’s the main thing.”
Anthony agreed with Jennings on the Knicks’ slowness. “I thought at times we were a little slow,” he said. “That’s something that we can correct. We can pick the pace up and play faster… there’s a way that you play fast. You can play fast and just be out there doing whatever, [or] you can play fast and be smart about what you’re trying to do out there.”
Pace of play wasn’t an issue in the first three minutes, but it soon changed and worked in Cleveland’s favor.
After trailing 8-3, on a Jennings 3-pointer, the Cavaliers ended the opening quarter on a 31-17 surge to lead 34-25.
Later, they used a 19-7 spurt to go up by 21 points just before a pair of Anthony free throws made the score 64-45 at halftime.
Those last two points of the half were the type the New York could have used a lot more of, as the Knicks (who entered the night tied for 13th in the league, shooting free throws at a 78.3 percent rate) missed half of their 28 foul shots, as they parlayed 10 more free throw attempts than Cleveland into just one more made foul shot than the Cavaliers.
Head coach Jeff Hornacek said, “[At halftime], we emphasized making free throws. We had eight missed free throws (on 15 attempts) in the first half. We ended up with 14 missed free throws. You’re not going to win many games doing that… that’s big… because, if you’re making free throws, now maybe they have a five-point lead or a six-point lead, but when a team gets a 13, 15-point lead, they’re all free shooting, there’s no pressure.”
Jennings added that rather than fatigue being a factor, the missed free throws were, “Probably just thinking too much.”
One last big Cleveland run — a 19-5 stretch — pushed the Cleveland’s advantage to a game-high 84-57 with 2:36 remaining.
Soon after, Jennings started to lead New York back, scoring eight points (on a couple of 3s and a driving layup) in the final 1:12 of the third quarter, to help draw the Knicks within 84-68.
Jennings added a game-high 10 points in the final period all before New York went on an 11-2 to run to trim a 14-point deficit with under five minutes left to 106-101, following a reverse layup by Lee and a steal and dunk from Anthony with 59.8 seconds left.
But as often has been the case for the Knicks this season — after a Love 3-pointer and a James dunk moved the lead back to 10 points with 30.6 seconds to go — it was too little, too late for a team that remained in 11th place in the East, yet just 1½ games out of the eighth final playoff spot in the conference.
On yet another pseudo comeback, Lee said, “It’s tough. You’ve got to exert so much energy to try to come back, so when it gets cut to five, it’s just like… they’re a very good team, they’re going to make a shot and Kevin Love hit that big 3, which was a dagger.”
Although New York can still look at the standings and see the postseason well within its sights with 30 games left, the reality of coming off of an ugly five-point win at NBA-worst Brooklyn on Wednesday night, yet playing a 23rd straight game without winning consecutive contests — while dropping to 8-20 since a 14-10 start — suggests that like their comeback falling short against the Cavaliers, the Knicks’ playoff push might inevitably become their ultimate fake comeback of the season.