PORTLAND, Ore. — Jeff Hornacek is still pushing the Knicks to win games, and working on things he believes will help them next season — even if next season isn’t guaranteed for him.
There’s been plenty of speculation about his job security. But the Knicks coach has one year remaining on his contract and is talking like someone who will still be coaching the Knicks next season.
“I still have next year so, unless they tell me something different,” Hornacek said before the Knicks let Damian Lillard torch them for 37 points in Portland’s 111-87 blowout victory Tuesday night.
When Hornacek was asked if he fully expects to be back, Hornacek responded, “I think everybody does.”
Hornacek was chuckling at first but then appeared to get annoyed by the line of questioning. Everyone is frustrated around the Knicks, and this game didn’t help.
The Knicks (24-41) lost for the 13th time in 14 games. Hornacek made a couple of changes to the starting lineup — one out of necessity. Rookie Frank Ntilikina got his first NBA start after Courtney Lee left the team because of a death in the family. Lance Thomas replaced Michael Beasley to add more defense to the first unit. It didn’t help. Lillard scored on anyone and everyone the Knicks put on him and the Blazers shot 20-for-33 (60.6 percent) on three-pointers. Lillard was 10-for-18 overall and 8-for-11 from three-point range, and led the Blazers (39-26) to their eighth straight victory.
“He’s playing like [Steph] Curry plays,” Hornacek said. “It’s from anywhere, anytime. The guy’s playing fantastic. He might be one of those guys you got to start talking about as MVP.”
Tim Hardaway Jr.’s 19 points paced the Knicks. Enes Kanter added 18 points and 11 rebounds.
The Knicks’ three young guards had rough nights, combining to shoot 5-for-28. Ntiliki na was 2-for-7 with six points. Trey Burke missed 10 of 12 shots and all four of his free throws in his four-point night. And starting point guard Emmanuel Mudiay shot 1-for-9 and had three points and six turnovers. He’s 1-for-15 in his last two games.
After the game, Mudiay went to lift weights to “clear his head.”
Lillard scored 24 points in the first half, but the Knicks were down only 57-52. Then the third quarter happened. That’s when the opposition often runs away from the Knicks. That narrative continued as Portland started the third on a 13-2 run and went up 70-54.
Following back-to-back Knicks buckets, Lillard scored nine consecutive points — two long three-pointers and he was fouled attempting a third. He connected on the three free throws to give the Blazers a 79-58 lead.
The Knicks cut it to 80-69 after seven consecutive points by Troy Williams. They never got any closer.
Their struggles are not all on Hornacek, though. Injuries derailed a potentially successful season when very little was expected of the Knicks.
They started 17-14. They’ve gone 7-27 since.
They went 8-12 with Hardaway sidelined with a stress reaction in his lower left leg. They’re 2-15 without Kristaps Porzingis, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL last month.
“We got off to a good start,” Hornacek said. “Then with injuries, were we deep enough with the top guys to overcome that? Obviously we weren’t able to. But that doesn’t mean that we haven’t improved. Guys are getting better, trying to improve their competitiveness.
“Going into when we get KP back and our draft pick, and maybe free agency, we can be in better shape next year.”
Hornacek has spoken about next season more lately. His future has been a topic of conversation for much of this season but more so of late.
He was hired by former Knicks president Phil Jackson. Steve Mills, who was the general manager and is now president, also was involved in the hiring process, which could help Hornacek.
But Hornacek wasn’t hired by GM Scott Perry, who could want to handpick his coach after what could be a fourth straight 50-loss season for the Knicks. They are a rebuilding team and might want to start next season with the coach who will lead them through it.
Management hasn’t given any indication publicly that Hornacek is that person. Knicks officials have said they will evaluate everything after the season. Some of the names linked to the Knicks’ coaching job have been Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, Doc Rivers, Jerry Stackhouse, Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd.
Hornacek was not given a playoff-caliber roster. Perry said the most important things were that the Knicks be competitive, play defense and play hard every night. They have struggled in all three areas.
Now Hornacek is being asked to play and develop the younger guys. He’s letting them play through mistakes even if it hurts the team’s record.
“Some of these teams have some really dang good players,” Hornacek said. “You go up against them and some nights they get you. A play here and there sometimes can make a difference. We’ll just continue to plug away at it.”