LeBron James nudged the Knicks with a comment and was pushed by Frank Ntilikina in the first quarter. But when the game was on the line, James pushed hardest and the Knicks crumbled.
The Knicks dominated for three quarters of a game that had a definite playoff atmosphere with the intensity, the physical play and the crowd’s volume. But they blew a 23-point lead in the final 13:58 and lost to the Cavaliers, 104-101, on Monday night at the Garden.
James, who had upset the Knicks with a remark that was perceived as a swipe at Ntilikina, had 23 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds and was unstoppable with the game on the line.
The Cavaliers outscored the Knicks 43-25 in the fourth quarter, and during one stretch, James scored or assisted on 30 of 32 points. He had seven points, eight assists and two blocks — both on Kristaps Porzingis — in the quarter.
“We fought hard the whole game,” Porzingis said. “We played physical with them. They did the same thing back to us. At the end, what separated them from us was the experience. We don’t have that yet as a team.”
The Knicks (7-6) believe they grew as a team, though.
Ntilikina, who had seven points and six steals, pushed James out of the way when the rookie was trying to get the ball and inbound it. He said it had nothing to do with James saying Saturday that Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr., who was drafted just behind Ntilikina, “should have been a Knick.”
James said at Monday’s morning shootaround that it was a shot at former Knicks president Phil Jackson, not Ntilikina, and the 19-year-old point guard said that’s not why he pushed James.
“He was in my way to get the ball out of bounds,” Ntilikina said. “It could have been anyone, so I just pushed him to get the ball in. He was in my way.”
Said Jeff Hornacek, “That’s good — a young kid to stand up to the best player in the league. So I was happy for Frank.”
Center Enes Kanter ran up to James and got right in his face to protect his young rookie. Kanter and James jawed with each other and James pushed Kanter.
The Knicks took over after that but couldn’t close it out.
Kyle Korver scored 21 points off the bench, 19 in the fourth quarter, when he shot 5-for-8 on three-pointers. He also made four foul shots in the last 49.2 seconds.
The Cavaliers (7-7) were 9-for-17 on three-pointers in the fourth. “It’s hard to shut the water off when the guys start hitting shots like that,” Hornacek said.
Tim Hardaway Jr. led the Knicks with 28 points and 10 rebounds. Porzingis scored 20 and Kanter had 20 points and 16 rebounds.
Overall, it was an off night for Porzingis, who wore a protective sleeve over his troublesome right elbow for the first time. He shot 7-for-21 and missed three free throws in the fourth quarter, including two with 2:27 left that would have put the Knicks up five. James also frustrated him.
“It didn’t really help much,” Porzingis said of the sleeve. “If I fall on it, the hit’s so hard that that little protection really doesn’t do anything. It would have been the same if I didn’t wear anything.”
The Knicks led 97-92 with 2:59 remaining before the Cavaliers scored 10 unanswered points. The dagger was James’ three-pointer over Porzingis with 1:23 left that made it 100-97. After the four big free throws by Korver, Hardaway scored with 5.1 seconds left to make it 104-101. James missed two free throws but rebounded the second one.
“The Garden was rocking,” Courtney Lee said. “The energy in there in that first half was unbelievable. We let the fans down.”