Back from an arduous road trip, the Knicks took the floor at Madison Square Garden on Friday night to begin the second half of the schedule. And in the end, game No. 42 felt a lot like the first 41.
There were brief flashes of hope, highlights from an assortment of players, but mostly it was just a methodical grinding of the undermanned Knicks by the Pacers, who pulled away for a 121-106 win. The loss was the Knicks’ 11th in the last 12 games and 16th in the last 18
“It felt good to play here,” Kevin Knox said. “It’s not the result that we wanted, but it felt good to finally be back playing at Madison Square Garden. It felt good to be finally back here, sleep in our own bed and play in front of our home crowd.”
The Knicks were shorthanded with Enes Kanter held out because of flu-like symptoms and Frank Ntilikina out with a sprained left ankle. Damyean Dotson left with seven minutes left when he suffered a contused left calf. Tim Hardaway Jr. was lost a minute later in the fourth quarter when he suffered a cramp in his left hamstring and was helped to the locker room.
The Pacers were missing one of their top players, Myles Turner, but it made little difference. They built a nine-point lead by the end of the first quarter and stretched it to 12 by halftime and 21 in the fourth quarter. The Knicks (10-32) actually were tied with little more than two minutes left in the first half but saw the Pacers run off the final 12 points of the quarter.
“There’s no excuse, really,” Hardaway said. “We’re up two, three points with 3 1⁄2 minutes to go in the second quarter. We could easily get a couple stops, stretch the thing out. That’s all I’m going to say. I’m not going to point no fingers or anything like that. It’s just frustrating to end that half and they come down and hit two, three threes and they’re immediately up by 10. I don’t know what else to say, man. I really don’t know what else to say.”
Domantas Sabonis had 22 points and Victor Oladipo added 19 for the Pacers. Emmanuel Mudiay scored 21 for the Knicks.
Before the game, coach David Fizdale tried to look at the bright side.
“I think the first half of the season — despite I know the record doesn’t show it — what we accomplished in the first half is we took care of our building,” he said. “I’m talking about the internal workings of how we treat each other, how we operate, the work ethic and the respect that we pay each other every day, from the trainers to the coaches, all of us. Hopefully we’re not selling each other out or blaming each other. I don’t feel that in the building. I really feel like we accomplished that.
“And I felt like the young guys really took a big step from summer league to now. Now I want to see them start to be able to execute systematically, if they can start executing the defense with a higher level, seeing situations before they happen. And offensively really letting go and being OK with making the easy play and sharing the game. Those are the things I’m going to be looking for.
"Obviously, we’re pushing and I still preach that we’re going to compete and try to win every single game that we play. The guys are into that. That’s what makes me most proud of them, because they come with that attitude and that work ethic every day. Hopefully the second half of the season we’ll start seeing steps in those areas.”
It was Croatian Heritage Night, which meant a Croatian duo performing their version of Seven Nation Army and huge replicas of Mario Hezonja’s head being raced around the stands.
With the shorthanded roster, Hezonja, the Knicks’ only Croatian player, had plenty of opportunities, but he did not play to the level of the previous game at Golden State in which he scored 19 points. He had 10 points and six rebounds against the Pacers.
With just under three minutes left in the third quarter, Hezonja hit a three-pointer from the right wing, cutting the deficit to 89-76, and just shrugged — content to finally connect after misfiring on his first three attempts from beyond the arc.
“We’re just keeping it one game at a time with him, and just trying to keep his head clear about what his job is and what we expect,” Fizdale said. “Hopefully we can keep him going in the right direction.”