It’s hard to imagine that just over two weeks into the season, the Knicks might be a victim of lofty expectations. But here they were at Madison Square Garden on Friday night, suddenly finding themselves with a chance to push their win total within one of the best figure in the NBA. For a rare night, they were the favorites as they faced the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Maybe it’s easy to get carried away by the 5-3 record the Knicks brought into the game or by the way they had battled back from 15- and 18-point deficits to win the previous two games. So it seemed unfamiliar when the Thunder started the game shooting brutally and playing sluggishly — and the Knicks seemed incapable of keeping up with them.
With expectations comes frustration when they aren’t met. And for a night, maybe it was for the best that Madison Square Garden was empty as the Knicks fell to Oklahoma City, 101-89.
If the fan base and even the players were excited by the early start, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has seen enough to know that there still is a long path to navigate.
"It’s a hard league. It’s a hard league to get wins in. You have to come with an edge every night,’’ he said. "If you don’t do that, it’ll be difficult for you. In this league, as soon as you start feeling too good about yourself, you’re going to get knocked down. So every night you’ve got to bring it. Every day you’ve got to bring it.
"As I said, I think I’ve been very pleased with the approach, the attitude. And when we got down in a hole, I think we had the right intentions. We obviously wanted to get out of it. But you can’t do it individually. You have to remain a team and do it together.’’
The Knicks squandered an early 11-point lead and watched the Thunder pull away down the stretch. There were none of the usual heroics from Julius Randle, who had been carrying the team much of the season, or Austin Rivers, who has dominated fourth quarters since his return.
Randle was scoreless in the first half, plagued by foul trouble that limited him to 10 minutes of action after he entered the night leading the NBA in minutes per game. He did score 11 points in the third quarter. But the frustration continued, as he was hit with a technical foul.
The Knicks went into the fourth quarter trailing by only 69-63, but sloppy turnovers, missed free throws and unreliable defense erased much of the good feelings they brought into the night. OKC built the lead to 13 in the fourth quarter.
"I just felt like today for whatever reason, both ends of the floor, we didn’t play for each other," Randle said. "It happens. You go through that. The biggest thing is that we nip it in the bud right now, take care of it right now, get back to that, playing unselfish, playing for each other and sharing the ball, playing for each other on the defensive end as well, get that edge back."
At one point, the huge video board at the Garden pumped repeated cries of "De-Fense" through the empty arena, trying to prompt a chant from the empty seats. As it played, the Thunder’s Hamidou Diallo soared through a wide-open lane for a dunk.
Randle finished with a line of 18 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists that looked much better in the boxscore than it did on the court. RJ Barrett had 19 points and Elfrid Payton added 16. Immanuel Quickley, who had played so well in his first few games, shot 1-for-9.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists and Diallo added 23 points and 11 rebounds for the Thunder.
"I think you’ve got to trust the process regardless, through the good and the bad," Barrett said in the morning. "Getting those wins early, it’s definitely a great feeling. I feel like understanding what we can do and it pushes us even more, pushes us to be even better so we can be one of the top teams."