Knicks guard Evan Fournier reacts during the fourth quarter against...

Knicks guard Evan Fournier reacts during the fourth quarter against the Bucks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Credit: Brad Penner

The losses started piling up even before the opening tip.

That might not seem unusual for a Knicks team that has been struggling, although usually they wait for the first quarter to start. But after announcing Saturday evening that Obi Toppin was in the NBA’s health and safety protocols, the Knicks started Sunday morning by adding RJ Barrett to those protocols. Then the announcement came that starting point guard Alec Burks would miss Sunday’s matinee for personal reasons — the birth of his son in the morning.

With the reigning NBA champion Bucks arriving, that was about as good as the day would get for the Knicks.

Rookie Quentin Grimes stepped into the starting lineup for the first time and scored 27 points, setting a franchise rookie record with seven three-pointers. Even Kevin Knox came out of hibernation to add 18 points. But with every-game starters Julius Randle and Evan Fournier delivering miserable performances, the Knicks fell behind by 21 points and dropped their sixth game in the last seven, 112-97, at Madison Square Garden.

The loss dropped the Knicks three games under .500 at 12-15 — the most below .500 they’ve been all season. They are 5-9 at the Garden.

"It was tough, but a lot of people in the league, teams in the league have to deal with it," Randle said. "It’s the next man up and dudes are ready for their opportunity and they were today."

Losing players to health and safety protocols is no surprise, as increased testing in the last few weeks has revealed a glut of positive COVID results. Chicago has nine players in protocols, and this marked the first time since the start of the pandemic that the Knicks had two players sidelined at the same time. Knicks cCoach Tom Thibodeau would not say if there is a concern that more players could be lost.

"I’ve said this all along from the beginning: Our medical staff has been on top of it," he said before the game. "They have reminders everywhere. You just can’t let your guard down. Sometimes you can do everything possible and it still happens. So that’s our reality. We have to deal with it and we have to be ready to play."

The Bucks scored the first seven points and built the lead to 10 by the end of the first quarter. The Knicks were 1-for-10 from three-point range in the period. The deficit ballooned to 21 points in the second quarter, although the Knicks got within nine three times in the third period.

"They’re the defending champs, so they’re tough," Thibodeau said. "They got off to a good start, new starting lineup, we adjusted quickly. And then I thought the fight was better in the second half . . . But if you have two or three bad minutes against them, they’re going to make you pay."

There were a few positives. Grimes shot 4-for-4 from three-point range in the first 3:07 of the third quarter, giving him 25 points and 7-for-9 shooting in 23:21 of playing time to that point. Grimes, who entered the game having scored 24 points in 79 minutes in 13 games, then missed his final six shots.

Knox entered the game having scored six points in 22 minutes in six games all season. He was on the floor for 29 minutes Sunday.

Derrick Rose, who replaced Burks in the starting lineup, added 18 points and seven assists.

Khris Middleton scored 24 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo had 20 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists and former Knick Bobby Portis had 19 points for the Bucks (18-10).

The Knicks got nothing from Randle, who finished with eight points, 10 rebounds and seven assists but turned the ball over seven times and shot 2-for-9. Fournier had six points and shot 1-for-7 from beyond the arc.

Thibodeau defended Randle afterward. "In fairness, this an entirely different group out there," he said. "He made a number of good plays out there and he’s adjusting and teams have loaded up on him pretty good. Tonight he tried to make the right plays, and that’s the most important thing. Some nights are not going to be great. But as long as you’re trying to make the right plays, I see the work that he puts in. I have the utmost confidence in him. The whole team does."

"I just try to continue to make the right plays," Randle said. "Like, I can start forcing it, but what would that say about my trust in my guys? So I just try to go out there and make the right plays. At least my intentions are to make the right plays. Just try to take what the game gives me."