The New York Knicks won’t be printing those playoff tickets just yet.
Having turned around an 0-3 start that included a pair of 21-point losses with an impressive three-game winning streak that comprised an easy win by the same margin and another by only two points fewer, the Knicks (3-4) had some of their fans pleasantly surprised and even thinking their season could lead to challenging for a playoff spot in the NBA’s Eastern Conference rather than simply leading to yet another lottery-bound, tank-filled spring.
But with a legitimate Western Conference contender visiting Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, New York received a jarring jolt of reality in a debilitating 119-97 loss to the Houston Rockets (6-3), who even sans injured star point guard Chris Paul, led by as many as 29 points in the final minute of the third quarter.
Franchise forward Kristaps Porzingis scored a game-high nine points in the opening quarter, with five straight helping the Knicks to their largest lead, 23-15, less than nine minutes into the game.
But after making history as the first Knick and the youngest NBA player ever to score at least 30 points in five of his first six games to start the season, the third-year, 22-year-old Latvian star totaled just 10 points the rest of the night as Houston began to get a bit more physical with him.
Porzingis got help from his other two starting front court mates, as small forward Tim Hardaway, Jr. posted a team-high 23 points and center Enes Kanter added 12 points and six rebounds. However, no other Knick scored in double figures and aside from Hardaway, Jr. making half of his 10 3-point shots, the rest of the team made just 3 of 17 shots from behind the arc.
In sharp contrast, the Rockets did what they do best, once again hoisting a barrage of 3s while making enough to put yet another opponent on its collective heels. Houston went 19-for-52 from 3-point range, with guard James Harden — who had game-highs of 31 points and nine assists — shooting 6 of 17 from there while taking only six other shots from inside the arc.
Former Knick draft pick, forward Trevor Ariza (16 points), and guard Eric Gordon (17 points) each made half of their eight treys, respectively, and although forward Ryan Anderson only went 2-for-8 on 3s, he contributed a damaging 21 points as center Clint Capella also added 12 points and a game-best 13 rebounds.
After spotting the Knicks their early eight-point edge, the Rockets took control with a 23-7 run to go up, 40-30, near the midpoint of the second quarter. Houston later matched that 40-point output in the third period alone as part of an overwhelming 76-47 deluge covering the middle two quarters.
“It looked like they were a little tired,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said of his team, whose earlier three-game winning streak began on Friday, and through the loss to Houston, was playing a third game in four nights, and its fourth contest in six nights. “We didn’t have the same energy that we had in some of the other games.”
Fatigue might have been one factor for New York’s poor perimeter defense, especially against a team that lives on that part of the court as much as the Rockets do.
“They can shoot the crap out of the ball,” Hornacek added. “They all shoot step-back jumpers. We weren’t into them enough and we let them get going. They spread it around and were getting easy shots… our close-outs weren’t good enough and we stopped short. You can’t do that against those guys.”
Point guard Jarrett Jack, who was a major catalyst for the Knicks’ prior win streak (having been inserted into the starting lineup at the start of that stretch), noted of the Rockets, “They do a good job of spreading the court out. They have a lot of shooters, a lot of weapons.”
Recognizing the challenges of trying to defend a team which is as relentless with attempting as many 3s as Houston does, Jack added, “It’s very staggering. They have very, very capable shooters and willing shooters, but then they also have a huge presence in the middle like Capela, who you also have to respect. They put you between a rock and a hard place, and if you’re late on any of your rotations, they make you pay… they’re an explosive team. Their offense is their defense. They make a lot of shots in a rapid pace.”
But mostly, “They were pulling us in and out,” Porzingis said. “They’re really good at [drawing defenders] in and kicking the ball out and once they get in that rhythm and start making shots, it’s really hard to stop.”
As easy as the Houston’s victory was, it paled in comparison to the magnitude of the win by another team representing the same city.
While the Rockets were finishing their win on one coast, major league baseball’s Houston Astros were leading the Los Angeles Dodgers, 5-0, in the fifth inning, on the opposite coast, in Game 7 of the World Series. A short time after the Rockets completed their post-game interviews at the Garden, the Astros also won to end MLB’s third-longest active drought without a World Series championship. The victory also captured Houston’s first World Series title in the Astros’ 56-year history to provide at least some small consolation and pride for America’s fourth-largest city two months after Houston was decimated by Hurricane Harvey, one of the worst natural disasters to ever impact the United States.
The Astros’ win will likely be a season-long source of inspiration for the Rockets who with a healthy Paul, should be considered on a very short list of potential NBA title winners this season.
New York, meanwhile, has far less lofty aspirations for now as the Knicks try to rebuild and develop in small steps around Porzingis, who is only seven games into his newfound role as the face of his franchise following the offseason departure of future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony.
For the time being, that means putting another noncompetitive loss in the rear view mirror and focusing only on the next game, which for the Knicks, will be on Friday night, against Phoenix, as New York plays the third game of pivotal stretches of five straight games at MSG, and extending further, eight of nine and 10 of 12 at home.
“Just learn from it,” Jack said of the loss. “Understand that we have another one coming on Friday and let’s try to have a carry-over from the three previous games into that one and keep building.”
Hardaway, Jr. insisted, “Mentally, we’re [still okay]. Tonight was just tough. We know we’re a better team [than that]. Tomorrow, at practice, we’ll make sure we get the focus, and the energy, and the good vibes back, and come back on Friday. It’s only one game.”
Porzingis concurred, “It’s just one game and we’re going to learn from this game. Moving forward, there are going to be teams like this and teams that don’t shoot that many 3s, and all different kinds of teams, and we have to be ready for everything.”