Jeff Hornacek made changes, but the issues remained the same. And while Carmelo Anthony tried to put some recent controversy behind him, his missed put-back attempt with three seconds left was the latest in a series of frustrations that have piled up after these games like the sweat-soaked towels on the locker room floor.
“If they can compete and play like that,” Hornacek said after the 11th loss in the last 13 games, “then we’ll be OK.”
That’s what it’s come to as the Knicks (18-24) began the second half of the schedule: the endless search for consistent effort. Following Sunday’s loss in Toronto, the Knicks went toe-to-toe with a red-hot Hawks team and held a five-point lead with 3:01 left in the game.
But as we’ve seen from this group over the course of the last three weeks, their defensive play, self-inflicted wounds and questionable officiating hover over the finishes of their games like a black cloud.
First, Derrick Rose was called for an offensive foul with the Knicks leading by two with 2:32 left. Tim Hardaway Jr., who took the charge, was clearly moving into Rose so the call, if anything, should have been a block. This won’t be found on the NBA’s L2M report because it didn’t occur in the final two minutes, but it did have a significant impact on the finish.
On the ensuing possession, Rose turned the ball over – his sixth of the game – to provide the self-inflicted wound. Then came the defense, which started with Rose allowing Dennis Schroder to drive by him for a finger roll to tie the score at 103.
Rose answered with a drive and also had a beautiful floater with 43 seconds left to give the Knicks their final lead of the day at 107-105 with 43 seconds left.
All the Knicks needed to do was get one stop. They actually had a terrific defensive possession for 21 seconds. There was excellent coverage and movement and even switches. All bases were covered as Kris Humphries slipped out of a pick-and-roll and got the ball by the hoop. Joakim Noah stopped him, Rose crashed to check Noah’s mark, Paul Millsap, but Melo was caught in no man’s land at the foul line.
Before he could react, Humphries threw a pass to Schroder, whom Rose left, and he drained his only three-pointer of the game to give the Hawks the lead with 22 seconds left and just 3 seconds on the shot clock.
Melo got there late. Rose actually hustled out to contest, but Schroder already had a clean look and buried the shot.
Still, the Knicks had a chance for the win. After two buzzer-beating losses over this painful stretch of games, they certainly could have used a walk-off win at home. But Rose’s drive was stopped at the rim by Millsap and Melo’s fallaway put-back attempt clanked off the back rim. Noah then had a tip that caught front rim.
When the final horn sounded, The Garden was silent. The horn just echoed in silence. The Hawks celebrated, but it was completely quiet.
At least that’s how it felt if you were in the building.
Was Rose hit on the drive? Probably, but no whistle was blown. There were attempts to conjure up the emotion to argue the call and even boo the officials, but no one seemed to have the spirit to do it.
The best Hornacek could say was the line about how “we’ll be OK” if his team plays as hard as it did during that game. It was one that saw him juggle the lineup some, though it’s difficult to determine just how much of a change he was making with Kristaps Porzingis (sore Achilles) and Lance Thomas (broken orbital bone) both out. Ron “Burgundy” Baker started in place of Courtney Lee, who came off the bench, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas also made his first NBA start.
Both played well at times, but Baker and his reliable defense was conspicuously absent in the final two minutes.
As far as the lineup goes, Hornacek said when Porzingis returns he would play the center position, which suggests Noah would move to the bench. The plan, Hornacek said, is to play Melo at the power forward spot, which is hardly a revelation.
Melo scored 30 points on 15 shots for a very efficient game, but offense hasn’t been the concern for him or this team. When you score 107 points in a game, you should win.
The Knicks actually did do some good things defensively in this game. There was one poor stretch at the start of the third quarter when the Hawks scored the first eight points of the half and had an 11-4 run before the Knicks got going. Humphries hit two wide-open threes to highlight the defensive lapses the Knicks had in that quarter, where the Hawks scorched them for 35 points.
Yet in the final quarter, the Knicks held Atlanta to just 20 points.
So you can understand when a Knicks fan tells you he doesn’t know how to feel. It certainly looked better, but it’s difficult to convince yourself there is evidence of improvement. Even the players didn’t talk with much confidence that a corner may be turned.
“We were OK in spurts,” Noah said, “but we’re still not a 48-minute team.”
The schedule won’t wait for them to get there. We’re in the midst of a five-game week that continues Wednesday night in Boston against Isaiah Thomas — think we’ll be talking defense? — and the Celtics. We’ll have the pregame coverage on Knicks Game Night at 7 p.m. on MSG Network.