ATLANTA — It was the stuff of dreams for the Knicks, right before it very much wasn’t.
Carmelo Anthony, who missed Wednesday night’s game against the Cavaliers with a sprained ankle, was spry and productive. The triangle zipped with an efficiency that would make Phil Jackson beam with fatherly pride. And the Hawks — one of the best teams in the league and winners of five in a row — looked overmatched.
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That was the first quarter. That also was the wake-up call Atlanta needed. The Knicks were outscored by 29 points the rest of the way and fell to the Hawks, 117-98, on Saturday night at Philips Arena.
“Atlanta is a better team than we are — today, tonight for sure,” Derek Fisher said.
It didn’t seem that way early, but the Hawks, who were shooting only 25 percent late in the first quarter, bounced back loudly. They outscored the Knicks 27-12 in the third quarter, scored 62 points in the paint and sent two Knicks to the trainer’s room. Robin Lopez had to have six stitches in his forehead after a third-quarter collision and Kristaps Porzingis injured his right index finger in the first half (X-rays were negative).
“Once they get into the teeth of your defense . . . it breaks everything down,” Anthony said. “They did a good job of attacking, of spreading us out, of getting in our paint and creating havoc.”
Anthony had 18 points, 12 rebounds and four assists and shot 7-for-12 from the field for the Knicks (14-17), who took a 21-6 lead but were outscored 95-66 after the first quarter and have lost three in a row. Paul Millsap had 22 points, seven rebounds and seven assists and Al Horford added 19 points for the Hawks.
Millsap’s jumper with 8:22 left in the third quarter tied it at 68 and ignited a 15-3 run that gave the Hawks a lead they’d never relinquish. The Knicks committed four turnovers in that key 4 1⁄2-minute span against a Hawks team that entered the game leading the league in points off turnovers. Before scoring 26 on the Knicks’ 23 turnovers, they had averaged 20 points on miscues and never scored fewer than 10 this season.
“I thought we had some unforced turnovers, but I don’t think that was the key of the game,” Anthony said. “That third quarter — 27-12 — we came out of the gate, I don’t want to say not ready, but not prepared for the adjustment that they were going to make.”
The Knicks opened the game on a 14-2 run and led 32-22 after a quarter behind Anthony’s nine points. But whatever the Knicks built in the first quarter had all but evaporated 12 minutes later. The Hawks outscored the Knicks 38-31 in the second quarter and drew within 63-60 when Jeff Teague hit a heave from a few feet beyond the arc as time expired in the first half.
Things will only get tougher for the Knicks, who play the next seven games against teams over .500, with five of those coming on the road. “If it was just one thing, I could tell you,” Jose Calderon said. “Stuff happened. We weren’t able to play as good as we did in the first half.”
Notes & quotes: Fisher thinks Tim Hardaway Jr. belongs in the NBA, although the Hawks might think otherwise. Hardaway, who spent his first two seasons in the league with the Knicks and played under Fisher, was inactive for the eighth straight game. He’s played in only four games this season and spent two games in the developmental league.
“It’s a different situation,” Fisher said of Hardaway, who played 70 games with the basement-dwelling Knicks last season. “Tim is a young guy, a good player, a really good person, and he works hard, so I think he has to continue to wait for his opportunity and when it comes, take advantage of it.
“He joined a team that already had an identity and has a lot of returning guys, so it’s difficult to break through in those situations, but I think he belongs here in the league and I think when he gets his opportunity, hopefully he can make the most of it.”
Hardaway, who averaged 11.5 points last season, has averaged 2.5 points for the Hawks. He was traded to Atlanta on draft night for the No. 19 pick, which the Knicks used on Jerian Grant.