Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina drives around Spurs guard Patty Mills,...

Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina drives around Spurs guard Patty Mills, center, during the second half of an NBA game in San Antonio on Tuesday. Credit: AP/Eric Gay

The Knicks had managed to avoid the troubles and traps of the pandemic for much of the first half of the season. But Tuesday night the NBA’s Health and Safety protocols took away a key player — sidelining Derrick Rose, an announcement coming just before the Knicks took the court in San Antonio.

With Rose quarantined and Elfrid Payton already sidelined with a hamstring strain, little-used Frank Ntilikina, who had been the only player lost to contact tracing this season for the Knicks, was inserted into the starting lineup. And while Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has preached a next-man- up mentality, this time they just didn’t have the players to compete.

It wasn’t that they didn’t have the numbers, but they just didn’t have anyone capable. Ntilikina might have been the best option much of the night, scoring 11 points in a flurry early in the third quarter, and that might have told you all you needed to know. Julius Randle came down to earth for a night and his teammates followed with a miserable effort as they were out-hustled, outplayed and overwhelmed by the Spurs, 119-93.

"Obviously we didn’t play our best," Thibodeau said. "When you’re on the road you’ve got to play well for 48 minutes. We didn’t do that. We didn’t close out the second quarter well. Didn’t start the third well. You get what you deserve."

"Yeah, we definitely got what we deserved," Randle said. "Probably the first game we had like this honestly. Throw it in the trash and get back to work."

The Spurs (18-13) have been hard hit by COVID-19 this season, losing players and having four games postponed. Even Tuesday they were missing three players to Health and Safety protocols. Before the game Spurs coach Gregg Popovich raged against the lifting of the Texas mask mandate by Gov. Gregg Abbott, noting, "Well, in all honesty I’m worried about the people in our state. That’s a pretty mystifying decision considering the situation that we’re all in. But as far as the players go, we listen to the NBA, not Govenor Abbott."

While the Knicks did not disclose whether Rose had tested positive or if he was subject to contact tracing, even just the tracing would put him out of action. Rose will have to remain in the team hotel in San Antonio. The Knicks have one more game Thursday against Detroit before the All-Star break.

The lone possibility for Rose to be available Thursday would be if the test was inconclusive or a false positive and he is cleared Wednesday by multiple negative test results.

"Honestly, I don’t know for certain," Thibodeau said of how long they could be without Rose. "We found out late. Obviously, it was after I had spoken with you guys [pregame] so it was sort of a last-minute thing. That’s where we are in the league right now with all the health and safety protocols. We’ll wait to hear and as soon as we hear we’ll update."

Ntilikina, who had sat out 28 straight games before getting pushed into action last week, had just two points in the first half, but ran off 11 in the third quarter, hitting all three of his three-point attempts. Immanuel Quickley remained with the second unit and led the Knicks (18-18) with 26 points but shot just 8-for-21.

But the Knicks problem was not the lackluster offense, but the indifferent defense. The Spurs hit 18 three-point field goals and dominated throughout the second half. Leading 51-47 at halftime after ending the half with a buzzer-beating three, the Spurs piled on 68 second-half points.

Trailing by four at halftime the Knicks were down just three, 60-57 after Ntilikina hit back-to-back three-pointers. Then it was 66-60 Spurs when Ntiliina connected again. But outscored, 22-8 the rest of the period, they found themselves down by 19 through three quarters.

Trey Lyles led six San Antonio players in double figures with 18 points.

Before the game, Thibodeau was asked about his penchant for keeping his starters in late, even in a blowout, as he had Sunday in Detroit.

"That’s just a read on the game, what’s going on," he said. "The way people can make up ground with threes, there’s no lead that’s safe.

"I have a lot of confidence in our bench but we’re also trying to find a rhythm with the guys we have out and we have different groups playing. There’s a lot that goes into it and those are just coaching decisions."

This time he didn’t have to worry about breaking any of his player’s rhythm.