HOUSTON — The Knicks already were facing a big challenge that grew even bigger and more daunting with Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter unable to play because of back issues.
It would have taken a near-perfect performance on both ends of the floor for the Knicks, without their best player and their best inside player, to beat the team with the best record in the Western Conference on Saturday night. They didn’t get it.
The Knicks looked up for the challenge, building a 22-point lead in the first quarter, but came back to reality and were run out of the Toyota Center by the Rockets, 117-102.
The Rockets had too much firepower not to come back against the depleted Knicks, who went ahead 29-7 and led 61-58 at the half. But James Harden (37 points, 10 assists) outscored the Knicks 14-13 in the third as Houston (15-4) put together a 37-point quarter.
The Knicks (10-9) were outscored 91-46 in a 29:12 stretch that turned their 22-point lead into a 98-75 deficit early in the fourth quarter. They never got closer than 12 after that.
“We died,” Courtney Lee said. “We ran out of juice and they went on their runs and were making us work and spreading us out. We got fatigued and didn’t recover.”
This ended up being a very bizarre, painful and demoralizing two-game road trip for the Knicks. They blew a 17-point first-quarter lead against the NBA-worst Hawks and lost with Porzingis on Friday night in Atlanta. Saturday night’s defeat was the Knicks’ fourth when leading by at least 17 points. It also dropped them to 1-6 on the road.
“We just got to stay together,” Michael Beasley said after scoring 30 points in his best game as a Knick. “We do a pretty bad job of that when things aren’t going our way. It’s not the first time we blew a big lead.”
Porzingis said his back tightened up after Friday’s game, and the seldom-used Beasley started in his place. He had been benched six times this season, including the previous two games, and played less than seven minutes in four other games.
“I’m just doing what Coach asked me to do, making up for 45 points and 20 rebounds we didn’t have today, or at least trying to,” said Beasley, who had 24 points in the first half. “It felt good, but that good feeling was hindered a little bit by the loss.”
Kyle O’Quinn had 20 points and 15 rebounds. Lee added 15 points but had only two after halftime. Tim Hardaway Jr. had a rough night when the Knicks needed more from him. He shot 4-for-12 and had 11 points, six assists and three turnovers.
Ryan Anderson came off the bench to score 17 points and Trevor Ariza had 16 for Houston. Chris Paul shot 2-for-12 but dished out 13 assists.
The Knicks shot 1-for-10 from three-point range in the second half and finished with four threes to the Rockets’ 18. “The second half we did a bad job of sharing the ball, getting to their three-point shooters, letting James Harden do whatever he wants,” Beasley said.
The Knicks took a 21-3 lead and went ahead 29-7 with 4:36 left in the first quarter. At that point, Beasley had doubled up the Rockets 14-7. But Houston went on a 47-24 run in a 13:48 span. The Rockets shot 6-for-11 on three-pointers in the third quarter and took a 21-point lead when Anderson hit a three-pointer right before the buzzer.
“We knew that, especially without two of our starters, we were going to have to play an almost perfect game,” Jeff Hornacek said. “Our guys played hard. They played good for a huge portion of the game. But that’s a good team. They know how to get those threes off.”