The Knicks were presented an opportunity to pit their league-leading defense against one of the NBA’s most proficient offensive units on Sunday afternoon.
It was a test of contrasting styles. The outcome showed the Clippers’ offense is better than the Knicks’ defense.
Unable to stop the Clippers from scoring, the Knicks stayed in the game by producing one of their best offensive displays of the season for much of the day. But as the game wore on, the Clippers continued to pour it on and the Knicks could not keep up in a 129-115 loss at Madison Square Garden.
"The thing is, you have to play 48 minutes against them," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I thought we played overall very well in the first half, but the start of the third quarter, we started slowly and it gave them a cushion. And then we played from behind and that made it different for us.
"We knew they would come out aggressive to start and we have to match that intensity . . . 115 points should be good enough to get a win. This team, they’re great at putting pressure on you, getting into the paint and then spraying it out and then you have to close. If your closeouts are short, they can shoot the ball."
Julius Randle and RJ Barrett took on the challenge of Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, matching them play for play. Randle had 27 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Barrett added 23 points. Immanuel Quickley was a spark off the bench again with 25 points in only 27:16.
Leonard had 28 points, Reggie Jackson 18 and George 17 for the Clippers (16-5), who have won 10 of their last 11 games. They entered the day shooting 41.3% from beyond the arc, did even better than that at 44.7% (17-for-38) and shot 54.3% overall.
The Clippers brought a 101-91 lead into the fourth quarter, but Quickley’s three-pointer cut it to 105-103. Just as quickly, Los Angeles scored the next nine points.
"They’re a really good team," Randle said. "You can tell they’re a championship-caliber team, what we aspire to be. We put ourself in position, we gave ourself shots, but at the end of the day, they’re a really good team. So hats off to them."
The Knicks seemed up to the task early, leading 31-29 after the first quarter thanks to 12 points, six rebounds and two assists from Randle. It continued to be back-and-forth through the first half as the Clippers took a 66-65 lead, and the high-scoring, quick-shooting pace seemed to portend an ominous ending for the Knicks.
They entered the game ranked first in the NBA in points allowed per game (102.7) and opponents’ three-point percentage (.313), allowing only 11.8 made threes per game. But through three quarters, the Clippers already had 101 points and 14 three-pointers and were hitting 50% from beyond the arc.
"Honestly, I feel like we did a good job, just not a great job, not good enough to beat a team like that," Quickley said. "Some teams you can get away with it, but not the Clippers. They’re one of the best teams in our league, so sometimes you’ve got to give that extra effort, make that one more pass, whatever it might be. I feel like you’ve just got to do a little bit extra against the better teams like that."
Quickley almost singlehandedly brought the Knicks back, scoring 10 points in the first 4:15 of the fourth quarter to pull the Knicks within two. But the Clippers never stopped scoring.
A dunk by Ivica Zubac and a long jumper by George upped the lead to six. After Quickley misfired on a long three-pointer, Marcus Morris drained a corner three and the Knicks called time, down 112-103. Out of the timeout, the Knicks committed a 24-second violation and Leonard easily drove for a layup, forcing the Knicks to call another timeout.
"I think when you get to that point in the game, you’re also trying to kill runs," Thibodeau said. "I know with their team that they can put 10 points on you in a hurry. So you have to make corrections when you feel you need to, and sometimes it means getting the stoppage in play and then getting organized."