Jeff Hornacek smiled his “aw, shucks” smile before the game Wednesday and said sometimes, coaches can be too hard on players. Sometimes, they expect perfection when that isn’t possible. And sometimes, like he did on Monday, they get frustrated. They say their team may not be capable of playing defense. They get caught by television cameras looking like they’re walking away in a huff when their star player calls an ill-advised iso play.
But sometimes frustration is called for, and necessary. Because there are days like Wednesday, when there are 8.6 seconds on the clock and the ball is in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s hands and not making that defensive stop, or a number of stops before it, means a sixth straight loss.
After leading by as many as 16 in the third quarter, the Knicks fell apart in the fourth, losing to the Bucks, 105-104, on Antetokounmpo’s buzzer-beating, step-back jumper over Lance Thomas. It was a hugely dispiriting night in a string of them, as the Knicks fell to 16-19 and squandered a 30-point, 11 rebound, seven assist performance by Carmelo Anthony.
“It’s a tough night, and a tough pill to swallow,” Anthony said. “The fight was there, the effort was there . . . I think we gave this one away. We worked so hard to get up 15, 16 and we turned around, we were up three, up four. They had the momentum.”
Antetokounmpo scored 12 of his 27 points in the fourth as the Bucks outscored the Knicks 32-17. Derrick Rose’s turnover on an inbounds pass with eight seconds left — Antetokounmpo slapped the ball off Rose’s leg — led to the final possession.
“I guess I lost the ball and I blame that one on me,” Rose said. The Knicks had timeouts to give, but, Hornacek said, they thought they could safely get the ball to Rose. Added Rose: “I believe we had effort tonight and played hard.”
In reality, it was a team effort. Rose had 15 points and his layup with eight minutes left temporarily stalled the Bucks’ 16-2 fourth-quarter run. Mindaugas Kuzminskas (15 points), who propelled them in the first half, said things just fell apart then: “We still don’t have that killer instinct,” he said.
For three quarters, it was one of the Knicks’ better efforts in recent memory. They had allowed an average of 113.8 points in the previous five games and ranked sixth-worst overall going into Wednesday. And while Hornacek eventually walked back from his comments after their embarrassing 115-103 loss to the Magic Monday, defense and effort were huge subjects of discussion between games.
“What we told the guys is that you don’t just get out of a losing streak by showing up and playing,” Hornacek said before the game. “You’ve got to put some hard work in there and maybe tougher practice . . . I think they got a lot out of it.”
And there was improvement, though that’s not likely to give them any comfort. Keyed by Joakim Noah (16 rebounds) and Rose, they moved the ball better; Anthony, who came into the game shooting 9-for-28, started 1-for-4 but found his groove, drawing a slew of fouls in the second quarter. And Kuzminskas was a Lithuanian lightning rod in the first half, sparking a bench that scored 23 of its 33 points in the half.
“But we have to bounce back,” Noah said. “Nobody is going to feel sort for us. We just have to go out there and play with intensity.”
And maybe just a little bit of well-channeled frustration.