There have been very few times this season the Knicks let go of the rope in a game and this was one of them.
In the second game of a back-to-back, the third game in four nights and fourth in six, they hit a wall and their spirit shattered on impact.
“We just gotta go through it,” Emmanuel Mudiay said. “You just got to prepare yourself individually the best you can and as a team the best you can. Just seeing how young we are, it’s not an excuse, but we’ve got to see that we’ve got to want it more than other teams.”
Mudiay went for 32 points — his second 30-point performance in the last three games — but he couldn’t carry the Knicks through a brutal Third Quarter of Doom in which the Knicks gave up 41 points and scored just 17. Where they once had an 8-point lead was suddenly a 17-point deficit.
It was a meltdown that began with some open jumpers that were hitting front-rim, which usually suggests tired legs. Those rebounds went the other way quickly and the Suns got into a rhythm. The Knicks seemed to lose their enthusiasm quickly with each missed shot and conversion by Phoenix. This is something this group has done before: how struggles on offense can impact focus on defense.
“We just stopped competing on the ball,” said rookie, Kevin Knox, who had a strong first quarter, but was one of the culprits of this drop in compete level in the second half.
Knox finished with 17 points, but 13 of them came in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Devin Booker put up 38 points for the Suns, and he didn’t do much damage from downtown (2 of 7). The bigger issue was how he kept drawing fouls and went 14 of 15 from the line. The Knicks also couldn’t stop T.J. Warren, Booker’s backcourt mate, who dropped 24 of his 26 points in the second half.
Let’s be honest, the Knicks couldn’t stop anyone during a bulk of that third quarter. Not even Da ZONE could save them this time.
“They were getting anything they wanted offensively,” Knox said. “Every play they ran they probably converted. On-the-ball screens we were playing bad, on-the-ball defense was bad. Together as a team, we weren’t really as locked in as we were the first half.”
The Knicks were without Tim Hardaway Jr. (heel) and once again Allonzo Trier (hamstring). There’s two players who could have made an impact on offense that might have kept the defensive intensity from slipping. But without them, the Knicks managed to build a 66-59 lead at the half and were up 68-60 early in the third. So for a little over two quarters, the Knicks had enough on the court. David Fizdale didn’t want to use injuries nor the schedule in his postgame narrative.
“We’re definitely depleted,” Fizdale said, “but I don’t want to make that an excuse for the game.”
– Hardaway Jr. had some soreness in his right heel after Sunday’s game in Indiana and when he arrived at The Garden for this game, the heel was still sore to the touch. So the decision was made to sit him out. Fizdale did not seem to believe there was reason for any long-term concern. Courtney Lee started in his spot and finished with 12 points in 21:57.
– Mudiay’s second 30-point game in the last three games is part of an impressive stretch of 9 games in which he’s put together some notable statistics. He’s averaging 20 points and 6 assists in that span, shooting 47.8% from the field, 36.8% from three and 82.9% from the foul line. If you want to take it back a little further, he’s averaging 18.2 points and 4.7 assists over the last 13 games. So how much of a sample size do you need to see to start believing in the former lottery pick’s breakthrough as an NBA player? Fizdale after the game said what Mudiay has proven so far is that he’s a rotation player in the NBA and the next step is to prove he can be more than that. What else would he need to do? Remain consistent, as he’s been for most of the last two weeks, and also continue to improve his conditioning so he can be a more effective player on defense without it having an impact on his offense.
– Does Jamal Crawford ever age? The 38-year-old put on a career-best performance on his favorite stage, The Garden, but it wasn’t in scoring. It was in passing. Crawford recorded a career-high 14 assists off the bench for the Suns. It topped his previous career-best of 12 which he posted while playing for the Knicks in 2004-05. “It means a lot to me because everybody thinks of me as a scorer, but I came into the league as a point guard,” Crawford told MSG Networks’s Rebecca Haarlow. “I love passing. At this point they’re like, there’s no way he can improve on something. But I’m still improving parts of my game and I’m having fun again.” I wondered in my pregame Knicks Fix segment if this might be the last time we see Crawford play at The Garden. He signed a one-year deal veterans minimum deal with the Suns after he opted-out of his deal in Minnesota, so there are no guarantees he’ll be back next season, though he’s proving he can still play the game. Just think, Crawford was drafted in 2000. At the time, Patrick Ewing had just finished his 15th season with the Knicks.
[Coverage Of Knicks-76ers Begins Wednesday At 6:30 PM On MSG & MSG GO.]