A New Low? For the Knicks, it Just Might be
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly when this one got away from the Knicks.
Midway through the fourth quarter? At the beginning of the second? Around sundown on June 30th? Who’s to say, really.
And what does it matter, if we’re being honest?
After a 121-98 beat down, the Knicks now sit 20 games under .500, only one game past the halfway point of the season. Not that any realistic talk of the playoffs has been uttered around MSG since November, but there’s a certain exclamation point that comes with hitting this tragic number.
It’s really just not at all what you want. Not this season, not with a baseline of competence and competitiveness supposedly established this summer, even after the initial disappointment.
The lowlights have come in different forms and fashions - often under a barrage of 3-pointers, sometimes with late heartbreak, tonight with a defensive effort reminiscent of a preseason game at times - but there have been far more of these than bright spots. That much is clear.
Less clear is the way out of the darkness. They have already fired one coach this season, and while the Knicks have shown definitive improvement in the way the team has run its offense under Mike Miller, his simplified defense only takes them as far as the extra effort the players are willing to give. Too often it has been inconsistent. Tonight, save for the usual suspects, it was nowhere to be found.
As Marcus Morris said after the game, that's on the players. Presented once more with the convenient excuse we heard early and often this season - the one about how there were nine new faces in the locker room - his response was succinct and representative of a lot of feelings surrounding this team right now:
He was blunt throughout his postgame assessment, saying their energy level was "not where it was supposed to be," and how he expects them to be "more together" and "more excited" to play, when instead, "we're pulling apart." He did not have an easy fix in mind, saying only that playing hard was a choice.
It is not a choice they made tonight.
Who will be left to make that choice will be the primary topic of conversation that dominates the next three weeks, as it probably should. We’ve heard for a while now that the trade deadline won’t simply be a time to unload veterans for draft picks and prospects, and that the front office will continue to try and improve this team for this season, regardless of their record.
After a night like tonight (to say nothing of Tuesday’s shellacking in Milwaukee), it’s hard to sell the rest of this season as anything more than a fire sale followed by an extended training camp. If that sounds less than palatable, rewind back a tape of tonight's game and ask yourself:
Can it really be that much worse?
Adding insult to injury, RJ Barrett was on crutches in the locker room after the game, having taken a nasty fall in the third quarter resulting in a sprained ankle. He stayed in for a bit but quickly exited the court.
The spotlight will be on him as much as anyone over the rest of this year. Julius Randle, the team's prize of the summer, continues to put up numbers while leaving more than a bit to be desired on the other end. Whether or not the powers that be decide to keep him as the offensive focus of this team - or on the team at all - will be a story to watch.
The other young players of note - Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox - all had a few strong moments, but not enough to make anyone think that they are ready to take the next step and begin to lift this team to new heights on their own. As such, the Knicks will continue to look for a way up out of the muck, closer to where tonight's opponent seems to have arrived.
Those Suns are coached by former Knick Monty Williams, who said after the game that New York "is a really good organization" and a "first-class place." Whether he was being polite or not is anyone's guess. He also added a glimmer of hope for Knick fans leaving tonight feeling like none is on the horizon:
"We're not doing anything different than them. Everybody can appreciate the Knicks because it's New York, it's the mecca of basketball and at some point if they continue to do what they are doing right now, they play hard every night, they play in the paint, they have good guys on their team, I think they are going to figure it out. We're no different than the Knicks."
Maybe in the grand scheme of things he's right, but on this night, the two teams looked nothing alike.
And there are no excuses for that.