Jalen Brunson and Bojan Bogdanovic of the Knicks walk off the...

Jalen Brunson and Bojan Bogdanovic of the Knicks walk off the court after losing to the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024 in Houston. Credit: Getty Images/Carmen Mandato

HOUSTON — It had been an uphill battle for the Knicks in an ugly, physical, frustrating game. They finally tied the score, though, and appeared bound for overtime as the clock ticked to the final tenths of a second.

After Jalen Brunson’s tying jumper with 8.3 seconds left and Precious Achiuwa’s blocked shot, the Rockets’ Aaron Holiday grabbed the loose ball and fired up a desperation heave from 30 feet out that missed. Brunson closed out hard and contested the shot — and referee Jacyn Goble signaled a foul as the Knicks’ bench erupted incredulously.

With no challenge left, the call stood. The referees huddled and decided three-tenths of a second remained when the foul occurred. After Holiday made the first two free throws and intentionally missed the third, the officials ruled that the game was over, leaving the Knicks with a frustrating 105-103 loss to the Rockets at Toyota Center.

If the frustration was high at that point, it certainly rose when referee Ed Malloy, in a call with a pool reporter, said that on video review afterward, it was determined that the call was incorrect.

“In live action, it was felt that the lower-body contact was illegal contact,” Malloy said. However, when he was asked if the officials believed it was the correct call after seeing the replay, he responded: “After seeing it during postgame review, the offensive player was able to return to a normal playing position on the floor. The contact, which occurred after the release of the ball, therefore is incidental and marginal to the shot attempt. And it should not have been called.”

Tom Thibodeau, who already had been hit with his first technical of the season on a bizarre first half-ending call, angrily shouted at Malloy. Afterward, he chose his words carefully.

“Tough way to lose a game,” he said. “Tough way to lose a game.”

Asked if he thought it was a foul, he said, “You look at it.”

The players offered similar takes. Brunson answered every question about the play by saying, “Great call. Next question.”

Josh Hart, asked about the call, said, “I don’t know. What you think?” When the answer was that it didn’t look like a foul, he said, “All right, well, just know I want you to write that.”

The Knicks may have lost another piece, too. Donte DiVincenzo (23 points) tried to stay on the floor with a right hamstring issue but finally had to ask out with 5:12 remaining and headed directly to the locker room.

DiVincenzo spent nearly the entire timeout just 40 seconds earlier trying to work out the problem, first on his own and then with a Theragun supplied by the training staff. He stayed in the game out of the timeout but had to ask out shortly after that.

Through all of their injuries, the Knicks have been able to hang on, thanks to the play of Brunson. On this night, though, with Dillon Brooks shadowing him for all 94 feet and the Rockets sending second defenders with their array of long-limbed athletic wings, he missed his first seven shots.

Brunson finally connected on his first field goal with 3:54 left in the first half and the Knicks down by 15. Still, he fought back to finish with 27 points and seven assists — but the officials may have left him even more frustrated than Brooks and the Rockets’ other defenders had.

Asked if Brunson seemed to take a beating all night, Thibodeau said, “Yeah. We had 12 free throws, so — and they’re a high foul team. So that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

The Rockets (24-29) were 23-for-33 from the free-throw line. The Knicks (33-21) were 7-for-12.

The Knicks entered the night with a 22-1 record against teams currently below .500, and in the Rockets, they had an opponent with a losing record and four straight losses who were missing point guard Fred VanVleet.

The Knicks played one of their worst halves of the season, fell behind by 16 points and trailed by 14 at the break. The half ended with DiVincenzo grabbing an offensive rebound and trying to fire up a three-pointer at the buzzer, but he misfired and Holiday was called for a foul. After the officials reviewed the play to see if there was time remaining on the clock when the foul occurred and concluded there was, the Rockets challenged the foul call and the officials reversed it — instead giving DiVincenzo an offensive foul and then adding a technical foul on Thibodeau.

“Obviously, it’s tough, man,” Hart said. “We came back from what? Two double-digit leads? Obviously, we would’ve loved for the game to get into overtime, but at the end of the day, we didn’t play our best, and you can’t let the end of the game be out of our control. So I think we would’ve and I think everybody in the basketball world would’ve liked it to go into overtime, but at the end of the day, they made the call and we gotta rock with it.”







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