The Knicks had an eight-game winning streak, a 17-point first-half lead and a chance to pull within two games of a playoff spot.
In other words, they had motivation and momentum. But neither was enough to stop the pick-and-rolling Jarrett Jack, who scored a season-high 31 points and had 10 assists to lead the Cavaliers to a 106-100 win Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.
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Jack had 23 points in the second half as the Knicks squandered a chance to move within sniffing distance of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
"It's tough. We should have won this game. We gave it away,'' said Carmelo Anthony, who led the Knicks with 32 points but missed all five of his shots in the fourth quarter.
Added Amar'e Stoudemire: "It's a tough game. You really don't want to lose a game like this, especially against a team that's not making a push to the playoffs. We should have known that going into the game.''
What the Knicks knew was that eighth-place Atlanta blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead Sunday in a loss to Toronto. They also knew they were playing a team on a four-game losing streak that was missing leading scorer Kyrie Irving, who had given the Knicks fits in their previous six matchups.
The Knicks (29-41) are 8-3 in March and have gained 3½ games on the Hawks. Before the game, Mike Woodson said he doesn't like to talk about the math or look at what other teams are doing.
"I know it's dangling out there, but we just have to win,'' he said. "If we handle our business and continue to win, everything else will take care of itself.''
But the Knicks didn't handle their business, especially defensively, in the second half. The Cavaliers made 76.7 percent of their shots in the final two quarters, with Jack 10-for-13. Part of the problem may have been that the Knicks were without Iman Shumpert, their best perimeter defender, and no one was able to step up to pick up the slack.
"Once Jarrett Jack gets to the lane, it's hard for Tyson [Chandler] and myself to block the shot,'' Stoudemire said. "It's hard to block floaters. Most of the time we kind of bait players into driving the lane for layups and we block the shot. But when they shoot floaters, it's tough.''
Things will get a bit harder for the Knicks, whose five-game West Coast trip opens against the Lakers Tuesday night in Los Angeles. Aside from Wednesday's win over the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers, the Knicks compiled their streak against teams with losing records. They also play the Kings, Suns, Warriors and Jazz before coming back to face the surging Nets on April 2.
As Woodson said before the game: "Every game is meaningful. We don't have room for error.''
The Knicks found that out.