Knicks Exhibit Guts & Grit in Defeat to Rockets

ROCKETS 129, KNICKS 122

These are the games that give coaches sleepless nights, more than missed last-second shot or a bad call. It’s efforts like the one his undermanned team gave last night in Houston — while James Harden put forth a historic performance — that had Jeff Hornacek shaking his head.

“That’s all we ask,” he said. “Just go out there and compete as hard as you can.”

What might keep him awake on the flight home, staring bleary-eyed at the glowing screen of his iPad as he watches the game back, is a voice that continually asks, “Where was this effort the night before in New Orleans? Where was it in Phoenix? Where was it on nights where just this kind of effort alone would have been enough to win?”

The Knicks were without two starters — Kristaps Porzingis (Achilles) and Courtney Lee (wrist) — and didn’t have Carmelo Anthony (knee) for the second half. And yet there they were in the fourth quarter, after trailing by as many as 19 points in the third, down three in crunch time against one of the NBA’s most prolific offenses and one of the game’s most unstoppable forces in Harden.

“We had a chance,” Hornacek said.

So while the loss in Houston wasn’t one to lament, the grit and determination the Knicks showed was proof that this team has a lot more to give on most nights. But after four straight losses, the Knicks (16-17) now sit a game under .500 and in a mosh pit of mediocrity in the Eastern Conference playoff standings.

Of perhaps a bigger concern is here we are in January and again Melo is dealing with an injury. It’s a fourth straight year Melo has missed time with an injury in January. Three years ago he missed three games with an ankle sprain and he came back to put up a 62-point performance against Charlotte. Two years ago he played through a knee injury until he shut it down after the All-Star Game. Last season he turned his ankle when he stepped on a referee’s foot and the Knicks season turned for the worse.

And now it’s a sore left knee, which happened when he banged knees with Dante Cunningham Friday night in New Orleans. This after he missed a game two weeks ago with a sore shoulder.

Melo told me last year, “Man, I’ve never been 100 percent since my rookie year.” And that’s true of every NBA player who logs the minutes and carries the responsibility of a player like Melo. And despite all of the injuries of late, Melo has still played in 81 percent of games since he joined the Knicks in Feb. 2011.

But what’s fair to consider — and for Phil Jackson, Steve Mills and Hornacek to discuss — is how to manage the physical decline of a star player.

At what point would it be reasonable to consider bringing him off the bench?

Before you dismiss such blasphemy, give the idea a chance to marinate. Melo at this point in his career is more effective as a “stretch” power forward than at the small forward position, where he struggles to guard athletic wings and has a hard time closing out three-point shooters. With Noah’s emergence lately — 9 points, 11 rebounds 1 block in 27 minutes per game over the last 6 games — the Knicks are better defensively with Noah flanking KP in the frontcourt.

So what if you started Courtney Lee and Justin Holiday together for a smaller, faster lineup with Derrick Rose and brought Melo in off the bench to play the “four” spot with Kyle O’Quinn as a second unit with Brandon Jennings, Ron Baker and Mindaugas Kuzminskas? Perhaps look at possible trades before the deadline for a three-point shooter to upgrade either the starting three spot or backup two?

Melo would feast on backups in the second quarter and could still be available to finish games in the fourth.  This is more about getting off to better starts, establishing a defensive mindset at the start and also managing Melo’s minutes in the game.

Think back to the early 1990s, when Kevin McHale, at the age of 32, moved to the bench and became a very good Sixth Man for Boston in his final years. Perhaps a better example is Mark Aguirre, who was a one-dimensional scorer with the Dallas Mavericks but after he was traded to the Pistons, at the age of 32, he accepted a role off the bench and was a key piece of a championship team.

Melo, by the way, is 32. He turns 33 in May. He’s averaging 33.4 minutes per game this season, which is the lowest of his career. He’s also shooting 42.2% from the field this season, which is also the lowest of his career.

Now, I’m not suggesting this is a move to be made starting Monday. But it is something that has to enter into conversations within the Knicks hierarchy, if it hasn’t already.

And, to be fair, Melo has proved enough this season that he can still be an elite scorer. He’s put up 30 or more points six times this season and the Knicks are 5-1 in those games. On this lost road trip, he averaged just 14.3 points on 35.7% shooting and played just 24.6 minutes in the three games because he was ejected in Atlanta and didn’t see the second half in Houston because of injury. He played just eight of the 12 quarters.

There was some thought that Melo wouldn’t play against the Rockets, but after Porzingis was ruled out, Melo decided to try to play through the pain. It was clear early on he couldn’t move well and winced a few times.

“He just couldn’t go in the second half,” Hornacek said.

Melo explained, “The more I played, the more I tried to run on it, the more sore it got.” He later added, “I don’t think it’s that serious,” but left the possibility of not playing Monday against the Magic at the Garden. He’ll get treatment today and see how it feels on Monday.

January is a tough month, with 17 games, four back-to-backs and two three-games-in-four-nights blocks and an exhausting week with five games in seven days. Rest will be at a premium and injury-prevention is critical during these tough stretches in the schedule. That’s why Hornacek laments some of those games in December, when the Knicks didn’t give the kind of effort they needed to win. The kind of effort he saw in Houston, which, despite missing several key players, was almost enough to beat one of the top teams in the NBA.

We’ll have our first broadcast of 2017 on Monday with Knicks Game Night at 7 p.m. on MSG. Happy New Year everyone.