Back in late December, when the New York Knicks had won two straight games, to raise their season record to 16-13, they never imagined that their next winning streak might not come until next season.
Yet with only three games left in another disappointing year, that’s a very stark possibility after the Knicks – who were coming off of a home win over Chicago two nights earlier — played their 50th straight game without notching consecutive wins, as they dropped a tough 106-103 decision to the Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
While guard Brandon Jennings (who started the season with the Knicks before being waved and moving on to the Wizards) spoke of Washington (48-31) — which tied Toronto in the chase for the three seed in the upcoming Eastern Conference playoffs — “trying to get to 50 wins,” New York (31-49) is just about the opposite after moving to within one loss of its seventh 50-loss season over the past dozen years.
Although late-season losses with are fine with many Knicks fans hoping to see New York draft a future franchise difference-maker (with their team currently positioned with the NBA’s sixth-worst record), the players who keeping taking the floor for the club continue to play hard and make things difficult for teams chasing playoff seeds, like the Wizards.
On paper, Washington should have had an easy time at the Garden. And for a while, the Wizards did, in building leads of 31-19 late in the first quarter, and in going up by as much as 71-56 within the first five minutes of the third period.
But to the Knicks’ credit, in a game that meant little to them and a lot to the Wizards, New York — even without two of its top three scorers (forward Kristaps Porznigis and point guard Derrick Rose), getting doubled up in 3-point makes (14-7) and as expected, getting torched in the backcourt (49-23), where Bradley Beal (25 points) and John Wall (24 points) dominated Ron Baker (12 points) and Courtney Lee (11 points) — refused to roll over and simply gift-wrap a win that was needed far more by a superior squad.
Instead, New York willed its way to a 49-39 rebounding advantage — including an impressive 20-9 edge on the offensive glass — and scored the final six points of the third quarter to get within 82-75.
Holding the Wizards to just 15 points over the first 9 ½ minutes of the final period, the Knicks tied the game twice in the final three minutes, and it wasn’t until a tie-breaking right corner 3-pointer from Beal with 49.9 seconds left, and a missed trey by star forward Carmelo Anthony with 2.9 ticks remaining, on the game’s final possession, that Washington could finally shake pesky New York and breathe a collective sigh of relief.
“I thought our guys battled all night,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said proudly. “They got down at times, but they kept battling back… our guys didn’t quit. They have been playing like that all year. I am happy that they keep playing together and keep playing hard… I thought our guys were playing the right way.”
The Knicks’ valiant effort was symbolic of the trouble New York has sometimes caused over the past three-plus weeks while in the spoiler role against opposing teams trying to either reach the postseason or which — like Washington — are battling for playoff positioning.
Since March 14, New York is just 4-8. But three of those wins came against Indiana and Chicago (which are tied at 39-40 and currently holding down the final two playoff spots in the East) and against Miami (38-40), the next team down, just a half-game back. The Knicks’ other win in that stretch was against Detroit (35-43), which sitting three games behind Miami, was dealt a damaging blow to its playoff hopes with a 14-point loss to New York on March 27.
Five nights earlier, New York also put up a good fight in Utah (48-31, currently fourth in the West, just a half-game ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers), where the Jazz needed to outscore the Knicks by 10 points in the final quarter to rally for a seven-point victory.
Head coach Scott Brooks, graciously said of his counterpart’s team, “They played hard… it was a good sign [for them]. They are not going to [simply] wind the season down… they kept competing. They kept playing hard and that is not easy to do… we knew it was going to be a difficult game because they play hard.”
Wall added of the Knicks, “Give that team a lot of credit. They fought hard and never quit.”
Taking the compliment, Lee juxtaposed the bittersweet feeling of not backing down while continuing such a long period of time without producing a winning streak.
“It shows that we can compete with anybody,” Lee said. “We have to play consistent and play together. But it still sucks. We haven’t got two wins in a row [in a long time]. So it’s tough.”
Forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas, a 27-year-old rookie — the oldest of six first-year players on the Knicks’ roster – said New York had an obligation to its fans to keep playing hard until the end of the season despite having long been out of the playoff picture.
“We’re just thinking about finishing this season strong,” Kuzminskas said. “[Fans] are coming [to the games] and we’ve got to give them a nice game.
“We don’t give up, [whatever] the score… people are coming to watch us. We have a lot of fans and we want to play for them [and] for us and to carry [that] to next season… and hopefully, we’ll start next season strong.”
Offering one reason for New York’s struggles this season, Kuzminskas (one of 10 new Knicks brought in last summer) added, “This year, we had a lot of new players. We didn’t have enough time to know each other. At the end of the season, maybe it’s a little too late, but we’re starting to know each other better and we’re playing better.”
Like his head coach, Anthony was proud of his teammates’ solid effort.
“We’re just fighting,” he said. “Guys are out there competing. Of course, we wanted to win, [but] that’s all you can ask for, to give the effort and to go out there and compete.”
Whereas Brooks said that was difficult to do for a team in the Knicks’ position at this time of year, Anthony said it’s been easy for New York to block out the talk of tanking for a better draft pick in June.
“We try not to think about that,” Anthony said. “It’s not something that we even talk about.”
However, Anthony isn’t convinced how much his team’s solid effort to close the season could help next year.
On that, he asked rhetorically, “You know how hard it is to think about next year at this point?
“It’s very hard to think about next year and what can carry over into next year. I think it can carry over into the offseason… what you can learn, what you want to work on, what you want to get better at, but as far as next season, it’s hard to even think about that [right now].”
Of course, even if the fight the Knicks are showing down stretch this year doesn’t yield any sort of lasting positive effect on next season, there’s still the strong possibility — despite New York’s admirable effort in defeat — that losing now can have in about eleven weeks, if the ping pong balls bounce New York’s way on draft night.