Jeff Hornacek took exception to a fair question before the game that asked how winning games over this final quarter of the season could impact draft lottery positioning.
“As a team,” he replied, “we’re not thinking about losing.”
It’s understandable from an aerial view to see where the post-trade deadline Knicks (24-36) are at this point and look at moves made before the game that involved the roster. It began with waiving veteran Brandon Jennings, who had some good moments off the bench, and signed with Chasson Randle, a rookie out of the D-League whom the Knicks liked in training camp. Another rookie, Ron Baker, will get Jennings’ minutes for now, but Hornacek said he and Randle will battle for the backup role behind Derrick Rose.
There was also the announcement that Joakim Noah, who signed a four-year, $70 million contract over the summer, would likely miss the rest of the season after having knee surgery. Noah played in just 46 games this season and missed time due to knee and hamstring issues that began at the start of training camp. Rookie Willy Hernangomez will take his place in the starting lineup.
Wally Szczerbiak and Al Trautwig discuss the news that the Knicks waived Brandon Jennings and Joakim Noah had surgery on his left knee.
So with no moves at the trade deadline, the jettisoning of a veteran player and the emergence of rookies in the rotation, it certainly looks as if the Knicks are focusing on the future. But against the Raptors, the Knicks put forth the effort of a team that knows this might be their last shot at making a run to get back into the playoff race.
They held a 17-point lead during what was a spirited first half effort, which built a 53-40 advantage at the half. Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas set a hard-working tone on defense and Rose was a catalyst at both ends of the floor like we saw in the first quarter of the season. There were times the Knicks played inspired basketball and The Garden was into it.
“We had spurts where we were playing the right way,” Lee said, “and playing for each other.”
But the Raptors, who made aggressive moves at the trade deadline to load up defensively with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, clamped down in the third quarter and the Knicks managed just 14 points on 4-of-16 shooting with seven turnovers. It set up for an entertaining finish and, just like Saturday night against the 76ers, Carmelo Anthony had the ball in his hands for the game-winning shot as time expired.
This time, as Melo said, “I missed it. I don’t think there’s much you can say about that one.”
There are times Melo is maligned by fans not for missing these shots — we told you in the pregame show he leads all NBA players since 2003-04 with 16 go-ahead baskets with five seconds or less remaining — but for sometimes wearing a curious grin or appearing apathetic after losses. But after his shot banked off the backboard and bounced hard off the rim, Melo pulled his headband off and threw it to the floor.
It was a rare public show of anger.
There were mistakes down the stretch that have plagued them this season, including a decision by Rose to not use the foul-to-give against DeMar DeRozan on the game-winning shot. Rose called it, “great D, better O” and preferred to give credit to DeRozan, who scored the last 12 points for Toronto.
Rose did call the loss, “devastating.”
The Knicks know this emotion all too well this season. It was their fourth one-point loss of the season and their 13th by five or fewer points. They have gone two months without winning consecutive games.
The standings show the eighth seed slipping further away, as the Knicks are now 4.5 games out with 23 games left. Opportunity is waning, but if this team is going to give it one last shot, the time is now. Over the next nine games, seven are against teams with a losing record and, more importantly, a few teams they are chasing in the standings, such as Detroit, Indiana and Milwaukee.
So if this team doesn’t want to talk about draft positioning, these next two weeks may decide that for them.