DENVER — When the deficit hit 20 for the Knicks in the second quarter, it began to feel like old times.
For Knicks fans, if old times means the 1990s, that’s good times. If it means 10 days earlier, not so much.
This was beginning to feel like the 37-point loss to the Nuggets at the Garden on Dec. 5 that turned out to be the final one for David Fizdale as coach. But this time the Knicks methodically worked their way back into the game, and early in the fourth quarter, they took the lead.
But the battle to stay ahead was just too much to ask against one of the elite teams in the NBA. After falling behind by five with 7:11 remaining, the Nuggets responded with a 16-2 burst in the next seven minutes en route to a 111-105 victory over the Knicks on Sunday night.
“It speaks to our character,” the Knicks’ Elfrid Payton said. “We’ve got a lot of fighters in this room, nobody that’s going to lay down. Simple as that.”
The Knicks led 98-93 and still were up 100-98 with just under six minutes remaining before the Nuggets ran off 11 straight points. The Knicks missed 10 straight shots in that span. With Denver ahead 109-100, RJ Barrett hit a three-pointer to end the drought, but only 10 seconds remained.
Marcus Morris scored 22 points and Julius Randle added 20 for the Knicks (6-21) in the finale of a four-game western trip.
Nikola Jokic had 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists for the Nuggets (17-8). His three-pointer gave Denver the lead for good at 102-100.
In the first half, Frank Ntilikina pulled the Knicks back into the game with 12 points and three steals in 13 minutes, with two of the steals leading to consecutive breakaway dunks in the second quarter.
In the third quarter, a banged-up Ntilikina went to the bench early and Payton (10 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds) continued the comeback, cutting the Nuggets’ lead from 16 at halftime to 87-84 entering the fourth.
“I thought we played hard in the second half,” Morris said. “Down the stretch we just couldn’t get nothing to go for us. Me in particular. I had a big third quarter and then down the stretch it just was tough for me to get one to go. I’ve got to be better, better down the stretch for my team.”
As the Knicks readied for the Nuggets, they tried not to look behind or to look forward, and you couldn’t blame them for that. When they rolled the game tape from the last meeting with the Nuggets 10 days earlier, it presented a hard-to-watch viewing.
The Knicks changed coaches after that game, but the roster could be the next spot that the team looks to change. Sunday marked the first day that the seven free agents the Knicks signed in the summer were eligible to be traded.
Morris is the most attractive trade chip, averaging 18.6 points per game and shooting 48.2 percent from three-point range. He is on a one-year, $15 million deal and certainly would be alluring to a playoff contender with his toughness and his offensive capabilities.
Beyond that, an NBA source said it is believed that the Knicks would be open to moving Randle, though he has the contract locked in for next season.
In the meantime, the Knicks are left to try to balance playing those veterans and increasing the value of those assets while developing their young players.
“I think the easy answer is allowing young players to play and, more importantly, play through their mistakes. That’s what we’ve done,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We don’t have a G League team, so we have guys that have all been given a chance to play and grow up and get game minutes.“