ATLANTA — The Knicks already are in the holiday spirit: They gave away a game Friday night that they appeared to be in position to win easily.
In Tim Hardaway Jr.’s return to Atlanta, the Knicks again showed they’re not a good road team or able to hold on to big leads. They squandered a 17- point first-quarter advantage against one of the NBA’s worst teams and suffered a 116-104 loss to the Hawks at Philips Arena.
The Knicks (10-8) dropped to 1-5 on the road and for the third time this season lost a game they had led by double digits.
“We dropped the ball on this game,” Courtney Lee said. “This was a game we felt we should have won. We put ourselves in position to win. But then we go out there and keep doing the same things that cost us in other games. We’ve got to figure out to stop doing that and win these games on the road.”
Kristaps Porzingis led the Knicks with 28 points and Lee added 26. Hardaway, who spent the previous two seasons with the Hawks, had 22 points and five assists.
Not having Enes Kanter’s energy and rebounding definitely impacted the Knicks. He missed the game with back spasms and is questionable for Saturday’s game against the Rockets.
It was only the fourth win in 19 games for Atlanta. Dennis Schroder’s 26 points paced seven Hawks in double figures.
“I thought the second quarter was a killer,” Jeff Hornacek said. “You see it all the time. When a team scores a lot in the first quarter on the road, you relax a little bit. You can’t have any letdowns to win on the road against any team. Winning on the road is a different mentality we have to try to develop.”
Coming off their inspiring home win over the Raptors on Wednesday, the Knicks opened the game on fire. They shot 76.2 percent (16-for-21) and scored 39 points in the first quarter. But the Hawks took it to the Knicks from there, outscoring them 92-65 after the first quarter and 57-37 in the second half. “The good start that we had was actually a curse to us,” Porzingis said. “Maybe we relaxed a little bit.”
The Hawks took a 98-89 lead on Tyler Cavanaugh’s three-pointer with 8:32 left. At that point, the Knicks were ice cold and needed a spark, and Porzingis tried to provide it.
With the Hawks up 102-95, Porzingis hit a jumper with 4:30 left and blocked Schroder’s layup attempt. But the ball stayed with Atlanta, and Marco Belinelli converted a three-pointer to make it 105-97.
The Knicks misfired on their next four trips, with Porzingis missing twice and Hardaway once. Atlanta converted back-to-back three-pointers by Belinelli and Taurean Prince and opened a 111-97 lead with 1:57 left. “A lot of shots weren’t falling,” Hardaway said. “They were doing a great job of just picking us apart, scrapping, getting turnovers.”
The Hawks played a video tribute for Hardaway during a first-quarter timeout and thanked him. Although Hardaway said being back in Atlanta is “nothing to get emotional about,” he often credits the Hawks for pushing him to become a more complete player. “They really did,” he said. “Made me mature as a ballplayer on and off the floor.”
The Knicks entered this season saying they’re rebuilding, but helped by Hardaway, they’ve gotten off to a fast start that has them and their fans thinking playoffs. The Hawks are a true rebuilding team — a young roster filled with little-known players.
The Knicks signed Hardaway to a four-year, $71-million offer sheet that the Hawks didn’t match. “There always comes tough spots for an organization,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s a good player, a lot of respect for him. We just thought for where we are and what we want to do, it was best for us as it played out.”
Budenholzer said the Hawks like the “flexibility” they have and that he just wants to see the team “competing and getting better every night.”
That’s been the Knicks’ line this season, but they didn’t live up to it against the Hawks.