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Improving Knicks take step back against Heat

Knicks forward RJ Barrett (9) looks for an

Knicks forward RJ Barrett (9) looks for an opening past Miami Heat forwards Duncan Robinson, right, and Meyers Leonard, rear, during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, in Miami. The Heat won 129-114. Credit: AP/Wilfredo Lee

MIAMI — The Knicks were feeling good about themselves while celebrating a one-sided win at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday before working through two days of practice and a morning shootaround.

As the shootaround at AmericanAirlines Arena was coming to an end Friday morning, players laughed and tried trick shots before speaking about the team coming together.

They pointed to the coaching change that triggered a 3-3 record in their first six games under interim coach Mike Miller after a 4-18 start under David Fizdale, and to the morning players-only meeting on the same day Fizdale was let loose. And they might have been convinced that things were changing for the long-struggling franchise.

Eventually they talked about the matter directly in front of them — a test with the Heat on Friday night followed by a meeting with the Bucks on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. And a few hours later, reality barged in.

The Knicks quickly fell behind by double-digits and spent most of the night trying to avoid having the deficit spill over 40 points. Down by as many as 34, they fell to the Heat, 129-114, to drop to 7-22, and it won’t get any easier on Saturday night.

“It’s tough,” Marcus Morris said. “It’s the NBA. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us, so we have to come in there and compete and give it our best.”

The Knicks saw the games against the Heat (21-8) and Bucks (25-4) as a test to see how far they had come. The answer is that they have a long way to go.

“Who doesn’t want a challenge?” RJ Barrett optimistically said in the morning. “Going up against two of the best teams in the league, it’s great. Especially as a player, that’s kind of what you live for. I’m very excited.”

Perhaps he was less excited as the test got underway and Barrett found himself enduring a 1-for-10 shooting night. The Knicks fell behind by 21 points in the first quarter, trailed by 23 at halftime and saw the lead balloon to 34 in the third before they made a late run to make the score more respectable.

There were a few too-little, too-late performances off the bench, with Bobby Portis scoring 30 points (12-for-17 from the field) and Mitchell Robinson (8-for-9) adding 18. The rest of the team shot 21-for-68 (30.1%).

The Knicks’ wins under Miller have come over the Warriors, Kings and Hawks. The Warriors and Hawks have worse records than the Knicks and the Kings played without their best player, De’Aaron Fox.

But for a team that was drowning, any win is a win. And sometimes losses are more than a loss. The end of Fizdale’s run came after consecutive blowouts: The Knicks lost by 44 points to the Bucks on Dec. 2 and by 37 to the Nuggets three days later.

With Miller in charge, the Knicks next lost by a single point at home against the Pacers before a 2-2 split of a four-game road trip, culminating in a loss at Denver in which the new Knicks came back from 20 points down to take a fourth-quarter lead before falling, 111-105. Then the Knicks beat the Hawks, 143-120.

Changes could be coming, too. Miller hinted that he could shake up the lineup for the first time since taking over. He started Elfrid Payton over Frank Ntilikina in the second half Friday and wouldn’t rule out that change for the starting lineup.

“We took a step back today,” Morris said. “We’re better than that. Good thing about the league, we’ve got another game tomorrow, try to get it back going in the right direction.”

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