DENVER — Must-win? You must be kidding.
In a game Carmelo Anthony called a “must-win,” the Knicks never led and were blown out by the Nuggets on Saturday night, 127-114.
The Knicks ended their western swing with a Mile High stinker for their third straight loss. They won the first two games of the trip and were desperate to return home with a winning record on the five-city journey. At least Anthony said they were.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “The effort wasn’t there. For us to say that this was the game that we wanted to end the road trip off on the right way and have an opportunity to make it a good road trip, it just wasn’t there for us. We just didn’t have it as a team.”
The Knicks (14-13), who were without the injured Derrick Rose for the second straight game, lost their ninth in a row in Denver. They last won there in 2006.
Anthony, who missed Thursday night’s loss at Golden State with a right shoulder bruise, paced the Knicks with 29 points. Kristaps Porzingis scored 22 but shot 7-for-19.
Knicks backup center Willy Hernangomez had a career-high 17 points and 10 rebounds. Hernangomez played in front of his brother Juancho, who is a Nuggets forward, while the rookies’ family watched in Madrid, Spain. Juancho didn’t get in the game until the end and the brothers were not on the court at the same time.
Kenneth Faried had 25 points off the bench for the Nuggets (11-16), who had seven players in double figures. The Nuggets had 68 points in the paint and 25 second-chance points.
Asked how he would sum up the Knicks’ road trip, Jeff Hornacek said: “Eh. So-so. It’s hard to judge a little bit. Derrick missing the games, but our other guys got to step up and we didn’t get the effort tonight that we thought we were going to get.”
Of course, the Knicks could have been tired while playing at high altitude in the last game of a long trip. Right?
“It sure looked like that,” Hornacek said. “But I don’t think that can be an excuse. We played every other day. Yes, you are traveling and going to different cities. That probably wears on you. But that’s the mental part of it, I think. There’s probably some physical tiredness, but if you can mentally get yourself prepared for a game, you can overcome some of that tiredness.”
The Knicks did well to be trailing by only eight at halftime. The Nuggets came out strong, opening a 14-3 lead. When former Knick Wilson Chandler hit a fadeaway at the first-quarter buzzer, Denver led 33-22.
The Nuggets opened it up again in the second and led by as much as 17 at 41-24. The Knicks chipped away behind Anthony, who had 18 in the half, including a no-look turnaround with 1.6 seconds left for the final points of the half. The Knicks trailed 62-54.
The Knicks pulled to within five early in the third, forcing Nuggets coach Mike Malone to call a timeout with 8:52 left in the quarter. The former Knicks assistant’s motivational speech must have worked wonders because the Nuggets dominated the rest of the quarter, building a 21-point lead before settling for a 96-80 advantage heading into the fourth.
Rose missed his fourth game in the last six with lower-back tightness. His injury has been described at times as “spasms” and “soreness,” but he said it’s tightness that has him unable to play.
Rose hopes to return on Tuesday night when the Knicks host the Pacers at the Garden. “I’m getting better every day,’’ he said, “but I don’t want to take any steps back.”