Knicks forward Julius Randle and Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges...

Knicks forward Julius Randle and Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges vie for position in the first half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

After months of inconsistency and some downright bad basketball, it looked as if the Knicks were starting to figure it out.

They entered Monday’s Martin Luther King Day matinee at Madison Square Garden having won three in a row and five of their last six. RJ Barrett was developing into a big-time player and the starting unit seemed to be reaching a comfort level with one another.

That team, however, was not the one that showed up against the Charlotte Hornets.

Miles Bridges stunned the Knicks hard and early on the way to scoring a career-high 38 points and leading the Hornets to a 97-87 win.

Bridges, whom the Knicks passed on in the 2018 draft to take Kevin Knox, landed shot after shot against a sleepy-looking Knicks team. He finished the first quarter with 22 points and 7-for-8 shooting from the field. With 5:57 left in the second quarter, Bridges had scored 28 of his team’s 45 points and had shot 10-for-11. He finished with 12 rebounds and five assists.

"We got in a hole early and that’s the challenge, particularly when you play an early game," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "It’s readiness to play and we played from behind. He got going and it was difficult to stop, and when we got our defense together, it was too late."

The final score did not represent the magnitude of the loss, as the Knicks scored 10 straight points in the final three minutes after falling behind by 23. They trailed by double-digits for the last 30:22 and their deficit hovered around 18 points for the majority of the second half.

The Knicks (22-22) were coming off a solid win in Atlanta on Saturday, their eighth in 11 games. So what went wrong?

"I wouldn’t say complacency," Thibodeau said. "That’s the challenge of the league. If you want to find an excuse, you can do so every night. There’s something. The challenge is you have to be ready to play and understand what goes into winning. You have to play with the same effort every night."

Mitchell Robinson said it took a while for the Knicks to wake up.

"Early in the game, our communication wasn’t there," said Robinson, who had 10 points, six rebounds and one block. "We didn’t get there until we were six minutes into the game, and it’s too late at that point."

The Knicks trailed by double digits after seven minutes and never fully recovered. They might have been able to do so if they had knocked down a few more shots against a team ranked 29th in the league in defense, or if they had hit a few more of their free throws.

Julius Randle had an unremarkable 18 points, shot 6-for-16 and had 10 rebounds. Barrett cooled off a bit, scoring 18 points and shooting 7-for-18, although he did have 12 rebounds and five assists. And the team as a whole was horrible at the free-throw line, shooting 11-for-21. At one point, the Knicks were 6-for-14.

"That really hurt us," Thibodeau said of the free throws. "That probably allowed them to get over the hump in the first half and get a double-digit lead. Sometimes it’s a concentration thing. Sometimes you shoot and it doesn’t go in."

Terry Rozier had 22 points and Gordon Hayward added 16 for the Hornets (24-20).

The Knicks need to put this one behind them quickly as they will host the Timberwolves in the second game of a back-to-back Tuesday. They would like to do something to make it up to their coach, who celebrated his 64th birthday on Monday.

"Nobody wants to lose. So we’re pretty disappointed," Robinson said. "Plus it’s Thibs’ birthday. So feel kind of bad."