SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Jalen Brunson was back in the starting lineup Thursday night, perhaps not looking quite like himself as he shook off the rust of two games on the sideline with a sore left foot, but he still provided almost all of the offense the Knicks could muster in the first half.
Then, as the Knicks came out of the locker room for the start of the second half, Brunson was missing. The announcement came from the team as the half was about to begin — Brunson was done for the night, with the left foot soreness forcing him to sit again.
The 122-117 loss to the Kings the Knicks could handle, fighting a losing battle trying to keep up with high-scoring Sacramento at a raucous Golden 1 Center. But the troubling news that Brunson, after five days off, could make it through only half of the game was an alarming problem.
"He just reaggravated it, but I haven’t talked to the medical people yet," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Just soreness. We've got to let the medical people do their job."
"I mean, it’s obviously going to be tough to replace his production," Julius Randle said. "We’ll do it. We’re up to the task."
The Knicks have relied on Brunson to provide scoring, of course, but more important, he has been the hard-driving leader on the court and off. On this night he scored 19 points in only 19:25. He shot 6-for-12 and the rest of the team shot a combined 12-for-39 in the half, digging a 16-point hole.
The Knicks (39-29) came back from a 21-point third-quarter deficit to tie it at 96, but too many mistakes without their floor leader left them short in the end.
There were late flurries from RJ Barrett and Randle, who each fought through tough shooting nights to finish with 25 and 23 points, respectively. Josh Hart had nine points and 15 rebounds — eight offensive, tying the franchise record for a guard — and seven assists.
Before a national television audience — just the second time this season for the Kings — Domantas Sabonis had a triple-double with 24 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists and De’Aaron Fox had 23 points — 15 in the fourth quarter — and seven assists for Sacramento (39-26).
Randle ran through a stream of consciousness of what he'd seen. "Bad start, tough loss, came back, didn’t shoot the ball well, it goes like that sometimes," he said. "One-possession game, need a stop, didn’t get it. Happens like that sometimes. So regroup, get to L.A., regroup, get a win."
The Knicks tied the score at 96 with 8:15 remaining — pulling even for the first time since they led 5-3 in the opening minutes — when Obi Toppin, Hart, Miles McBride and Isaiah Hartenstein grabbed offensive rebounds on the same possession and Barrett sank a three-pointer as the 24-second clock expired.
But Sabonis' jumper put Sacramento ahead 115-106 with 2:09 left. Randle drove through traffic to cut the lead to 115-113 with 47.5 seconds left, but Fox left Hart behind him on the perimeter and got to the rim for a layup with 26.4 seconds left for a four-point lead.
Almost from the start, the Kings seemed to be playing at a different speed than the Knicks — not exactly a surprise, with Sacramento boasting one of the NBA’s most potent offenses this season and entering the game leading the NBA in points per game (121.1).
Sacramento built the lead to 20 points in the second quarter and took a 69-53 lead into halftime. It wasn’t just that the Kings were flying around, but the Knicks again looked sluggish — the second straight game that they seemed out of sorts since the double-overtime win in Boston. But the Kings had something to do with that.
“Well, obviously I think it was since Fox has been here, the speed of the game has been unbelievable,” Thibodeau said. “He creates a lot of easy offense, but then when you add in the shooting that they've added to the team, the three-point shooting that's also helped Fox, because it's opened up the floor and then you bring in a guy like Sabonis that can invert their offense and run a lot of the offense. We're seeing more and more that now where the league has really shifted. The '90s was three-out, two-in, and we went from four-out and one-in and now we're basically five-out and everything is interchangeable.”