MILWAUKEE — The Knicks title drought continues.
This one may not hurt as much as the 50 years since the franchise last won an NBA title, but with an improved team and a one-and-done chance the Knicks had dreams of a trip to Las Vegas and a shot at the inaugural In-Season Tournament title. But the dreams of the bright lights of Vegas ended in Milwaukee.
The Knicks were knocked out in the quarterfinals and it was their defense that did them in — never coming close to slowing down the onslaught that began almost from the opening tip. The Knicks scored enough to stay in the game for a half, but at some point, they were going to have to clamp down or somehow outscore the Bucks and they could do neither.
The Bucks converted a scorching 60.5% from three, connecting on 23 of 38, setting season-highs for points in a half, through three quarters and in a game as they pounded the Knicks, 146-122, at Fiserv Forum.
The Knicks only loss in pool play came here against the Bucks and in that game the Knicks surrendered 20 of 39 from behind the arc and saw Julius Randle struggle through his worst game of the year. Randle corrected that with a season-high 41 points on this night, but the defense only got worse.
The wild fourth quarter in Indiana a night earlier that provided a thrilling hint of what the tournament could be was replaced by an emptying of the benches in the final minutes this time as the game got out of reach.
“A lot of excitement,” Bucks coach Adrian Griffin said before the game of the tournament. “The city is excited. We’re excited for the opportunity. But we have to prepare. People say it’s like a playoff game. It is. It’s a playoff game. That’s the way we’re approaching it.”
The Knicks, asked if it felt like a playoff game, didn’t quite feel the same. “No it didn’t feel like that,” Quentin Grimes said.
The Knicks did not look like a team playing for any banners on this night. The Knicks never were able to slow the Bucks. Down just three at halftime it all fell apart when the Bucks opened a 16-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Milwaukee broke it open with a 16-6 start after the intermission, capped by a dunk by Giannis Antetokounmpo on a side inbounds from Khris Middleton.
Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee with 35 points, but anyone who launched a shot from beyond the arc seemed like a star on this night. “Defensively we didn’t really do anything all game,” Jalen Brunson said. “That’s the story. That’s it. I mean, offensively we were playing fine. 119, 120 points. I mean, defensively on that side of the ball we just didn’t do anything. That’s it.
“They hit a lot of shots. They got comfortable. It’s on us to make it uncomfortable. They had rhythm from the start and it’s kind of hard to break someone who’s in rhythm. So you’ve got to take the confidence from the start.”
Randle, in his first game since being named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week Monday, put on a tremendous performance in the half — scoring 25 points on 9-of-9 shooting from the field (1-of-1 from three-point range) and 6-for-6 from the free-throw line, with four assists and three rebounds.
Even with that performance the Knicks seemed in danger of falling back, down six and showing little ability to slow down the Bucks offense when they make an unlikely surge. Brunson misfired on a three-pointer, but Randle hustled for the loose ball under the basket, and as he was falling out of bounds he fired a pass out to Donte DiVincenzo for a three-point field goal. Brunson then stole the inbounds pass and scored, drawing a foul on Lillard and converting the free throw — for six points in 1.1 seconds and a tie score, 70-70, with 52.6 seconds left in the half.
But the Bucks kept coming with Lillard scoring their final 13 points of the half to take a 75-72 lead at the intermission as they converted 65.1% overall but 12 of 17 from beyond the arc.
“That was it,” Randle said. “What was the difference on the three point line, six to 23, something like that? They were putting up a lot of points. They’re a great offensive team, a lot of weapons. But defense is who we are. That’s who we are to the core of us. We’ve got to be able to get stops and we just didn’t do that tonight.”