Knicks’ lack of energy during slump is most concerning
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The tree that grows in Manhattan is an apple tree.
No need to sugarcoat what we’re seeing. The Knicks haven’t just gone into a premature victory lap, they’ve gone into the full tuck position. All of the favorable work they so carefully crafted during a 9-0 stretch has been fully compromised and sabotaged by a 3-6 record across the next nine.
It wasn’t just that the Knicks sleepwalked through 80 percent of Thursday night’s disgraceful 111-106 loss to the young and promising but playing-out-the-string-this-season Magic in Orlando. And it wasn’t just that after spotting the Magic a 19-point lead in the third quarter they couldn’t put the Magic away after catching up after three.
It was this:
For a team that has been defined by urgency all season, a team that has been mostly resistant to extended slumps because their default position is to outwork their problems and to tend to the daily details of the long season, there was a troubling lack of passion and energy.
Want to blame the back-to-back, this game coupled with the 127-120 loss in Miami on Wednesday? Want to blame the absence of Jalen Brunson, who missed his 10th game of the year with a banged-up right wrist?
That’s your right.
But it’s also missing the point. At a time of the year when the Knicks need to be treating every game like a mini-playoff game, they are now on a three-game losing streak, two of those losses (Thursday and Monday’s loss at home to Minnesota) against inferior teams who took enormous leads too insurmountable for the Knicks to overcome.
“Right now,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, “we’re out of sorts.”
The fact is, the Knicks not only put themselves in position to dream big dreams with the way they played through the start of this month; they also put themselves in position to make the disappointment of not fulfilling that manifest destiny far more profound. The Knicks have picked the worst time of the year to go sideways.
Let’s say it even simpler:
They’ve picked the worst time of the year to start playing their worst ball of the year. Their best player, Brunson, now has a hell of a time staying on the floor. Their All-Star, Julius Randle, continues to show a disturbing lack of composure, picking up a technical for the third straight game and compounding the sin by screaming at Immanuel Quickley, who was trying to save him from his 11th T of the season.
Suddenly, somehow, the Knicks must now point to Monday’s game against the Rockets back home at the Garden and define it as a must-win. Between now and then, the Heat and the Nets will tangle with each other meaning one of them is going to inch closer to the Knicks; on Thursday the Knicks received an enormous break when the Nets somehow gagged away a game to the Cavaliers in Brooklyn.
But they can’t rely exclusively on the kindness of strangers forever.
They need to find their mojo and their swagger again. There are seven games left in the season and, thanks to the Nets’ largesse, they still control their own destiny. But they not only have to play better. They need to play harder. They need to play with an edge and an urgency that defined the season’s first 72 games and have been AWOL the last three.
“We have to do everything a lot better,” Thibodeau said.
It was about 15 minutes ago that the Knicks allowed you to ponder the possibility of taking aim at the Cavaliers sitting in the No. 4 position in the East, and they snuck as close as a game and a half behind Cleveland. But that train has officially left the station. The Knicks need to defend No. 5, and that means getting back to a winning place.
It starts Monday against the woeful Rockets, and on Wednesday they will greet the Heat at the Garden in a game that may well define the season. Right now this is just an ill-timed slump. It isn’t a free fall. Yet.
“We have to do better and we know that,” Thibodeau said. “We have to do everything a lot better.”
He isn’t wrong. At all.