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Knicks tumble down stretch to another road loss

Kristaps Porzingis led the team with 23 points, but he cooled off in the fourth quarter against the Bulls.

Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis drives between the Bulls'

Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis drives between the Bulls' Robin Lopez and Kris Dunn at the United Center on Dec. 27, 2017 in Chicago. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jonathan Daniel

CHICAGO — The brutal road stretch that started for the Knicks Wednesday night began in brutal fashion with another gut-wrenching defeat.

After the Knicks squandered a 15-point lead, and went the final 4:23 without a field goal, Jeff Hornacek said his team needs to play tougher. He believes if they were more aggressive, especially down the stretch, they wouldn’t continue to lose these close games. He wasn’t the only one.

The Knicks suffered a 92-87 head-scratching loss to the Bulls at the United Center. Chicago played the night before while the Knicks were off. But the more assertive team when it mattered was the Bulls.

“They played way harder than us in the fourth quarter,” Enes Kanter said. “We should be tougher.”

The Knicks led 86-83, but they missed their last eight shots and scored just one point in the final 4:23. They had 14 points total in the fourth.

It was the Knicks’ 11th road loss in 13 games this season. Beginning with this game, they play 16 of 20 and 19 of 25 away from the Garden. With the next two games on this trip at San Antonio Thursday and New Orleans Saturday, the road struggles could continue.

Kristaps Porzingis led the Knicks (17-17) with 23 points, but he was just 1-for-5 in the fourth with two points. Courtney Lee added 17 points, but he missed some critical shots down the stretch.

“I should have played a lot better,” Porzingis said. “I feel like I should’ve got us some buckets at the end.”

Dunn’s 17 points paced the Bulls, who won for the ninth time in 11 games to improve to 12-22.

The Knicks had a chance to tie the game twice in the waning seconds. With Chicago leading 88-86 after Lauri Markkanen converted a Knicks’ miss into a breakaway dunk, Jarret Jack was fouled with 8.5 seconds to go. He missed the first free throw, but made the second.

“Definitely kicking myself for that,” Jack said.

Then after Kris Dunn made two foul shots to put the Bulls up 90-87, the Knicks called timeout. Hornacek designed a play for Doug McDermott to come off a screen and take a three-pointer. The second option was Porzingis, and the third was for Kanter.

Hornacek said the Knicks didn’t set good enough screens to free up the first two options. So Kanter stepped out, took the inbounds pass from Michael Beasley — that just barely made it before a five-second violation — and hoisted the three-pointer. But he shot it wide right.

“I’m all right with Enes taking that shot,” Hornacek said. “He can shoot threes. But not as the main option.

“He was open. I’ve seen Enes make those threes. That would have been the second or third option. We just didn’t really get that screen to open up Doug.”

Kanter, whose mouth was bleeding at the end of the game after he took a shot from former Knick Robin Lopez, said he feels comfortable shooting three-pointers. He was practicing them at the morning shootaround. But he’s only taken two this season, and has missed both.

But Hornacek said the bigger issue on this play was the Knicks didn’t play tough enough and set a hard screen to get someone open.

“We got to set screens,” Hornacek said. “We got to set screens throughout the game, especially late in the game. What I talk to the guys about, the game becomes different late in the game. Those screens that you might think might be illegal early in the game, they’re not going to call those at the end of the game.”

Hornacek pointed to possessions throughout the game that came back to hurt the Knicks. They had double-digit leads in each of the first three quarters. But they fell apart again down the stretch like they did in Detroit last week.

The Knicks led 86-83 after a Lee basket with 4:23 to go, but they didn’t make another field goal. They had a costly turnover with 27.7 seconds left that led to two David Nwaba free throws. The Knicks were fortunate that he missed both. But then Jack missed the first of two free throws with a chance to tie.

After Kanter’s missed three, former Knick Justin Holiday (11 points) iced the game with two foul shots with 2.3 seconds left.

“There were so many things that we could have done better,” Porzingis said. “But we do need to execute better late in games.”

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