In the nearly empty Madison Square Garden, even from the farthest reaches of the stands and through the fake crowd noise, you could hear one thing above all else Sunday — the barking of Tom Thibodeau as he implored the Knicks to push harder.
But the coach’s effort on this night seemed more difficult than ever in the third quarter with the Knicks having little going for them. Hustle might have been their only hope.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic launched a three-pointer, and with RJ Barrett, Reggie Bullock and Julius Randle surrounding the rim, Nuggets guard Gary Harris slipped between them and was the only one to jump, grabbing the rebound.
Later in the quarter, Jokic faked a jumper, drawing Mitchell Robinson out, and easily slipped past him for an uncontested dunk.
No amount of screaming or barking would change the outcome on this night.
The Knicks’ early-season comebacks never appeared this time as they fell behind by 30 points and lost to the Nuggets, 114-89. Their second straight loss dropped them to 5-5, with a game Monday night in Charlotte.
From the very beginning, two things were evident: The Knicks were providing no consistent help for Randle, who had 29 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, and had no answer for Jokic.
The 7-foot center, who entered the night averaging a triple-double with 24.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 11.0 assists, had 22 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 30 minutes before getting an early rest with the one-sided score.
"I feel like I did great," Robinson said. "He made tough shots. It wasn’t like a walk through the park or something like that. He made tough shots. It happens."
The Knicks trailed 59-38 at halftime, cut the deficit to 14 in the third quarter and saw it balloon in the fourth quarter. In what might be an indication of the way it went, they did not have a single fast-break point.
"I think the biggest thing for tonight, I don’t think Denver really felt us," Randle said. "They’re a great offensive team and a team with championship aspirations, but I don’t think they really felt our aggression tonight at all."
"Some nights you’re going to shoot it better than others," Thibodeau said. "And you’d like to be in position to win each and every night. When you don’t defend and you don’t shoot well, there’s virtually no chance to win. So we have to count on our intensity, our defense, our rebounding and our unselfishness. When we do those things, we can beat anyone. So we have to get back at it and be mentally, physically and emotionally ready to play tomorrow night. It’s that simple."
The Nuggets (5-5) were without Michael Porter Jr., who has been caught up in the NBA’s health and safety protocols, first for a seven-day quarantine and now a 10-to-14-day isolation tacked on to that.
The Knicks have endured more than their share of sprains and contusions this season (they’re still without Obi Toppin, who was hurt on opening night). They had plenty to try to contend with the Nuggets on this night but got almost no production outside of Randle.
Barrett was 2-for-9 before a pair of late buckets, finishing with nine points. Immanuel Quickley was 0-for-4 from the floor after a 1-for-9 performance Friday.
"I just thought we didn’t play as well as we could have," Thibodeau said. "And I think those are the things that you have to do. When things aren’t going well for you offensively, I think the hustle part of it is critical. Oftentimes when you get going that way, things will turn for you. You see the spirit of the team change, the energy change, whether that’s taking a charge, getting to a loose ball, making a multiple-effort play, making a great steal and getting us into the open floor.
"Whatever it might be, a game can change quickly and oftentimes it does. Just like where we are right now, things were going well for us initially and now they’re not. And so just like it changed from good to bad, it can change from bad to good and we have to do everything we can to make that happen. Take a look at the film, try to learn from it and get that urgency back into us."