Melo-Less Knicks Lose Heartbreaker in Atlanta

HAWKS 102, KNICKS 98

For all of those nostalgic for those 90s Knicks — which we just referenced in the previous Knicks Fix — here was a throwback game for you. Three technical fouls, two flagrant fouls, one ejection, 53 free throws, 30 turnovers and neither team shot over 40 percent. It was a slugfest. It was a grinder.

And if the Knicks had pulled this off, Jeff Hornacek would have found some beauty in this mess. “We’ve been trying to get our guys to play like that for a while,” he said of the physicality his team brought.

All Hornacek could do was call it “a step forward,” but in the standings, it was a step back. The Knicks (16-15) lost for the sixth time in 10 games despite a much better effort on defense. On this night it was the offense that faltered.

Joakim Noah had another strong game with his third double-double of the season (14 points, 16 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and a block in 38 minutes), as the Knicks played without Courtney Lee (sore wrist) and most of it without Carmelo Anthony (10 points in 13 minutes).

Melo was ejected late in the second quarter after being called for a Flagrant-2 foul. He put his hands on Thabo Sefolosha’s neck during a box-out and then made contact with Sefolosha’s head. The game was already getting chippy at that point and it only intensified after the Knicks’ star left.

ESPN Stats & Info had an interesting fact: This was Melo’s 10th ejection of his career. That is twice as many as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined.

More important to the Knicks, their offense — one of the highest scoring in the East this season — was already struggling to find a rhythm at that point. “Once Melo went out,” Hornacek said, “it seemed like we had a tough time scoring.”

The Knicks managed just 38 points in the second half but had the ball in the hands of Derrick Rose (26 points) with a chance to win in the final minute. But Rose missed on a floater — which has been money all season but was off the mark on this night — and the Knicks were unable to get to the rebound.

In overtime, Rose again had a chance to win, but this time slipped as he drove the ball into a double team. It was only his second turnover of the game, but one of a few questionable decisions by him in crunch time. On both plays we just described, Rose had Kristaps Porzingis (24 points) open or guarded by a smaller player and Rose opted not to pass.

“I felt like some plays,” Rose admitted after the game, “I didn’t make the right plays.”

And then there was the officiating. Hornacek was hit with a critical tech in overtime after an egregious no-call of an obvious offensive foul by Paul Millsap, who drove right into Porzingis and then pushed off on the move. As Porzingis fell, Millsap dished it to Dwight Howard for a dunk that gave Atlanta a 94-89 lead with 2:23 left in the OT. Hornacek walked onto the court to call timeout and ripped into the officials. He was hit with the tech and after the free throw Atlanta had a six-point lead.

Hornacek said he was upset because it was an obvious push-off and at the other end of the floor in the previous possession, Porzingis was called for an offensive foul when Dennis Schroder got into KP’s space.

“I thought he was getting fouled,” Hornacek said of Porzingis. “Then he reacts and catches a second one and that one, clearly, Millsap had his arm out and hit him right in the chest and we don’t call it. So, yeah, that’s why I got a little upset.”

Rightly so.

And even still, Porzingis had a chance to force a second OT with 3.6 seconds left when he was fouled by Sefolosha on a three-point attempt. But he missed the first attempt.

“It’s not nerves or anything,” he said. “I just missed the free throw. I’m super-disappointed I missed such an important free throw.”

He made the second free throw and the strategy was to purposely miss the third and hope for an offensive rebound to tie. But Porzingis stepped into the lane before the shot hit the rim — that’s a violation — and the Knicks chances to win ended there.

It opened up a debate among Knicks fans on Twitter: should KP have hit the third free throw to make it a one-point game and just foul right away? There was 3.6 seconds on the clock. A quick foul, free throws, and a timeout get you the ball back at half court with time on the clock. Enough for another three-point attempt?

These are fair and fun debates. But it certainly doesn’t question Hornacek’s coaching. His intensity on the sideline needs to be reflected on the court more by his team. After 31 games, we’re still saying it and so are the players: this team is nowhere near as good as it could be.

“It’s going to click,” Noah said. “When it does, we’re going to be a scary team.”

This road trip continues as the Knicks head to New Orleans to play the Pelicans on Friday before a tough back-to-back and third-in-four situation in Houston against the up-tempo Rockets on New Year’s Eve night. We will have Knicks Game Night at 7:30 p.m. Friday on MSG.

The Garden of Dreams Foundation helps kids facing obstacles in the Tri-State area, including Rangers fan Taylor Ryan who is battling a rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.