It only took two quarters of basketball on Sunday night for the New York Knicks to readjust their fans from having any previous optimism about their playoff chances, back to a state of stark reality.
Just when New York was in the middle of making a late-season playoff push, with a chance to move within two games of the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, the Knicks did what they’ve done all season — they once again became their own worst enemies while suffering yet another gutless, inexplicable and embarrassing defeat on their own floor.
New York’s latest debacle, a head-scratching 106-100 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, might have been the most damaging yet this season to the collective psyche of Knicks fans because of the timing.
The Knicks were the second-hottest team in the league, behind only the NBA-best San Antonio Spurs (winners of their past 13 games), riding a season-high, eight-game winning streak that included an impressive 92-86 win over the East-best Indiana Pacers.
That stretch came at a time when the Pacers, and the team right behind them in the East — the two-time defending champion Miami Heat — were each struggling.
Those events offered hope in a season which had gone all sorts of wrong for New York.
Knicks fans began talking of 1999 — the last time New York reached the NBA Finals, after squeaking into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed during a strike-shortened season.
But make no mistake, Knicks fans. Don’t buy the latest offering of fool’s gold in the form of an eight-game winning streak. It’s over.
ESPN’s John Hollinger puts New York’s chances of reaching the postseason at just 12.6 percent. And if those odds depend on the Knicks’ heart and sense of urgency, they’d be considerably lower.
Why? Ask the Cavaliers, which Hollinger has at just 0.5 percent.
Cleveland — playing without its best player, Kyrie Irving, and down by as much as 17 points in the second quarter, 61-46 at halftime and by nine points in the fourth quarter, had every reason to pack it in — yet refused to do so.
Instead, the team that has been reduced to the role of spoiler showed more resolve and determination than the one that was supposed to be fighting for its playoff life.
Somehow, Jarrett Jack, averaging just 8.9 points per game, torched New York for a season-high 31 points — the same way Jimmer Fredette (averaging only 5.6 points per game this season) scored a season-high 24 points in 27 minutes off the bench, to lead the Sacramento Kings (presently the third-worst team in the Western Conference) to an overtime win at Madison Square Garden in February.
All too often, opponents entering the Garden this season have not only been younger and quicker than New York, but far hungrier to put on a show in the World’s Most Famous Arena than the Knicks have been with putting forth a complete, 48-minute effort necessary to defend their home court.
Incredibly, Jack and Fredette are (as the Wall Street Journal’s Chris Herring points out), just two of the 15 — yes, FIFTEEN — different players who have had season scoring highs against New York this year.
On Sunday night, it simply meant more to Jack and the Cavaliers to help wreck the Knicks’ season than it did to New York (knowing that Atlanta had lost earlier in the day) in taking the next step toward grabbing the eight seed with the sense of purpose that a club like one in the Knicks’ position should have.
But should that really come as that much of a surprise anymore?
Such an attitude started way back on opening night in late October, when New York raced to a 25-point halftime edge against the Milwaukee Bucks (currently the league’s worst team), only to become overconfident and blow that entire lead before holding on for a much more difficult victory than the Knicks should have had that night.
Sure, many key injuries have played a role, but that was a poor excuse for New York losing nine straight games to fall to 3-13, while unsuccessfully chasing the .500 mark ever since.
Later, when the Knicks put things together and won five straight games (including a win over Miami) to fight to 15-22, they subsequently responded by immediately giving those five games back, during a stretch that was capped by a home loss to Philadelphia (the only team that is presently sitting above Milwaukee).
The Knicks rebounded with four straight wins, the last of which included a 26-point win over Boston, followed by a 29-point victory against Cleveland (with Irving playing in that game), each at home.
However, all those wins did, in a larger sense, was point out how New York never should have lost to Boston by 41 points at MSG in early December, or on Sunday night to the Cavaliers, with a chance to put some serious pressure on Atlanta.
Sure enough, the Knicks lost 13 of their next 15 games (to drop to a season-high 19 games under. 500, at 21-40), prior to their eight-game win streak that Cleveland just ended.
Thus, why would anyone have realistically thought that it wouldn’t eventually fall apart again — especially in a season in which New York, now 29-41, has managed to clinch the only non-winning season at any level in the basketball career of the NBA’s reigning scoring champion, and the Knicks’ franchise player, Carmelo Anthony?
It’s just a matter of time before the season turns into his only losing year and then the lone non-playoff season for Anthony, who will then decide this summer if he feels it’s worth waiting for a turnaround, and whether or not the Knicks’ new Phil Jackson era can provide that for him.
So now it’s a trip out west for New York, which after assuring itself of a losing home record with the loss to Cleveland, will close the regular season with two-thirds of its final 12 games on the road.
Some Knicks fans will look at the Eastern standings and see that Atlanta, too, is unimpressive at only 31-37, and that making up three games still seems attainable. They’ll also point to that recent win over Indiana and continue to hope and dream.
But Hollinger has it right. The Knicks’ playoff chances are slim.
And one thing that Hollinger doesn’t quantify in his calculations, which makes New York’s postseason possibilities even less likely, is heart.
That can only be measured after the fact. Deficiencies in that all-important category can only be examined after games like Sunday night’s loss to Cleveland — apparent wins that should be wrapped up, but which the underachieving and continually dysfunctional Knicks can’t seem to always put away (New York, according to Herring, has lost eight times this season after leading by double digits).
“We came out a little flat,” forward Amar’e Stoudemire said after the Cavaliers’ win. “We didn’t quite have the intensity we needed.”
Over the past two years around the Knicks’ locker room, being “flat” and lacking “intensity” have been code for simply being outplayed and not wanting to admit it — but not when you’re up by 15 points at halftime against an undermanned team that should in theory, have less to play for, and you let a game that you desperately need, get away. That type of situation appropriately calls New York’s effort into question.
How such a notion can still be possible at this stage of the season, with so much at stake, is not only unfathomable, it’s inexcusable and unprofessional. And against a depleted team like Cleveland simply playing out the string, it’s embarrassing and pathetic — just like much of the Knicks’ season has been following a great, division-wining year last season.
Yes, it’s only three games. But any limited prosperity New York has enjoyed this year never lasts. Even if it’s not Atlanta (losers of two straight games) putting its stamp on the eight spot itself, somehow, the Knicks will ultimately find a way to stand in their own way. Cleveland knew that. And maybe even the most optimistic Knick fans are finally starting to realize the same.
Tags: New York Knicks