SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The days are winding down on the Knicks’ season and maybe Jeff Hornacek’s time as their coach. But he delivered a strong message to his players over the weekend, and it was by design.
Hornacek wondered where the Knicks’ pride was after Friday night’s 23-point loss to the Clippers. A day later, he said that when he was a player, the worst thing a coach could question was his pride. When he was asked if he was deliberately sending a message to his players, he laughed and said, “I’m not sure.”
The Knicks (24-39) are careening toward a fifth straight year of missing the playoffs and a fourth straight year of at least 50 losses. Although they’re not playing for much when it comes to the standings, Hornacek said they should be playing for something in the final 19 games and not just going through the motions, as they appeared to be doing Friday.
If nothing else, he wants the Knicks, who faced the Kings on Sunday night, to be professional and play with pride. He doesn’t believe it should be difficult for the players to remain engaged despite the current state of affairs. It’s their job.
“They’re all fighting to maybe be on the team next year or to be in this league,” Hornacek said. “We have a lot of guys that have been in the G League and they’re fighting to hang around. So that shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe some of the older guys, but we’re asking them to be the leaders for those young guys, kind of show them how to play every game.
“It doesn’t matter what your record is. You go out there and play for the pride.”
The message was loud and clear, but are the Knicks listening or have they stopped? Their effort level of late would indicate that they’re looking ahead to the offseason.
From the beginning of what was considered a rebuilding and developmental season, general manager Scott Perry said he wanted to see the Knicks compete every night. They may do it for a half, but as soon as an opponent makes an adjustment or raises its intensity or aggressiveness, they have crumbled lately.
The Knicks entered Sunday with 11 losses in their last 12 games. Their defense has been awful during this stretch, and even worse since they lost Kristaps Porzingis for the season with a torn ACL on Feb. 6. Without Porzingis the last eight games, they had allowed 118.4 points per game and 51.0 percent shooting from the field.
Hornacek, who played in a much more physical era, said the Knicks need to play more physically and even knock someone down once in a while. He was disgusted that the Clippers had “a layup line” in their 71-point second half and that DeAndre Jordan, who dunked on the Knicks all night, took only two free throws.
“With the schemes and the way we’re guarding it, we have to do it with more force,” Hornacek said. “That’s knocking a guy off his spot. It’s boxing a guy out and actually knocking him down. If it’s a guard on a big, you’re not just putting your arms on him and wrestling him somewhat hard, you’re hitting him as hard as you can.
“We have to be the scrappy team. We have to be the team that dives on balls. If we don’t, it’s going to be difficult for us.”
The Knicks are at a disadvantage on most nights because they don’t have the speed and athleticism other teams have. They also have many rotation players who don’t put all of their effort into the defensive end.
Hornacek said he will keep harping on “getting up in a guy” until the last game. He wants the Knicks to keep battling and keep improving, even if they’re not in playoff contention.
“We’re not going to let go of the rope,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “We’re all we got right now. We’re going to continue to fight, continue to push even when we’re struggling, even when we’re in tough times. All of this is a learning process. Everyone needs to buckle up for this ride and take advantage of it.”