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Knicks fall behind by 30 in 14-point loss to Nuggets

New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) reacts

New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) reacts during the third quarter against the Denver Nuggets at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY, on Saturday, Dec 4, 2021. Credit: Brad Penner

It was an early afternoon at Madison Square Garden, the kind of outing in which families crowd the stands after soaking up the holiday cheer around the city. And it took the Knicks little time to turn the oohs and aahs of the holiday spirit into spirited boos raining down on the home team.

Facing a shorthanded Denver Nuggets squad that had lost seven of its last eight games, the Knicks came out flat from the start Saturday. After a brief rally early in the third quarter, they were humiliated on their home court as the crowd — deservedly — taunted them. They fell behind by as many as 30 points in a 113-99 loss that dropped them below .500 for the first time this season at 11-12, including a miserable 5-8 at home.

But what they heard from the crowd was no worse than what they thought themselves. A half-hour after the game was over, Tom Thibodeau still had not emerged for his postgame interview. For the first time in his tenure, a player spoke first, with Julius Randle voicing the tenor of what the team felt.

"We’ve got to go home and really take a long look in the mirror and see how we’re going to change it," said Randle, who led the Knicks with 24 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. "We know we can do it. We’ve done it. We’re in a funk right now. It’s hard, it’s tough, it’s not fun. But we have the ability and the power to change it. And it’s really going to be up to us if we want to.

" . . . I say it all year, I’ll continue to say it. We’re going to win games with our defense. That’s who we are. We’re not the superstars, three, four superstars on the team like Brooklyn or all these other teams. We’re a team. How we were last year, how we have to be this year as well, we have to win games with our defense."

What they saw opposite them on this day was one superstar — reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, who had 32 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in 27 minutes before sitting out the fourth quarter. But the Knicks couldn’t contend with whatever the Nuggets threw at them.

The Nuggets arrived in the midst of a seven-game, 13-day road trip and playing severely shorthanded. Already without Jamal Murray, who is rehabilitating after suffering a torn ACL last season, and Michael Porter Jr., who is possibly lost for the season with a back injury, the Nuggets had to leave three players behind in Orlando because of COVID-19 protocols. Austin Rivers tested positive and Bones Hyland and Bol Bol were close contacts and unvaccinated.

Zeke Nnaji, who entered the game averaging 6.8 points in 12.1 minutes per game, added 21 points and eight rebounds in 33:40. The Nuggets shot 20-for-43 from three-point range.

"Just disappointed," Thibodeau said. "We have to take this opportunity to take a look at things, gather ourselves and get ready for the next game. With the way we’re playing at home, that’s the disappointing part.

"As I told them after the game, you go to Atlanta, you win there. I thought we played well against Brooklyn. Had a bad first half against Chicago but fought hard in the second half and put ourselves in position to win that game. And then tonight, when you have an MVP-type player, you can’t come out and start the game the way we did.

"We have to get our edge back defensively. It starts there. Get the hard part fixed. And then we got into it together, we got to get out of it together. We got to fix the effort part. And then we got to go from there."

After falling behind 44-28 in the second quarter, the Knicks closed to within 69-63 on a three-point field goal by Alec Burks 3:58 into the second half. But with a chance to cut the deficit even further, Randle lost the ball and Monte Morris found Jeff Green ahead of the field for a layup. Randle missed a shot and Jokic beat Burks inside for a dunk, sending the Knicks into a timeout.

That didn’t stop the avalanche. The Nuggets put together a 23-3 run for a 92-66 lead and brought a 92-71 advantage into the fourth quarter. The lead grew to 30 at 106-76 with 8:40 left and Thibodeau put his starters back on the floor.

"I think we’re at a point in the season where we just are trying to figure it out, trying to figure out who we’re gonna be, what we’re gonna do every night," RJ Barrett said. "And whoever it is, whoever we’re gonna be, we gotta figure that out quick and just make sure we stick to it and win some games."

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