At Madison Square Garden, where an opportunity to say “The World’s Most Famous Arena” rarely is missed, what the building mostly has become known for is this: It’s the place where the Knicks lose almost every night.
They had tried different lineups and a variety of strategies, but they had found no answers for nearly three full months, losing 18 consecutive games at home dating to Dec. 1.
Coach David Fizdale was asked if he was trying to find something that would change the team’s fortunes.
“Incense? Sage?” he said before the game. He most likely was joking, but with this kind of streak, it’s hard to rule out anything.
On Sunday, the Knicks certainly didn’t do everything right. In the opening minutes, Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. moved in to corral a rebound with no Spur near them and accidentally tipped it in to give San Antonio two points. And a 23-point second-half lead disappeared, fading to a nail-biting margin in the fourth quarter.
But for once — at least once since Dec. 1 — the Knicks won at home, holding off the Spurs, 130-118, and avoiding at least one small piece of NBA history.
The Knicks already had set a franchise record for consecutive home losses, but a loss Sunday would have tied them with the 1993-94 Dallas Mavericks for the worst streak in NBA history.
It was enough of a surprise that it got a mention at the Oscars, where Samuel L. Jackson read the result from the stage.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich slapped himself in the face when he was asked about giving up 130 points to a team that hadn’t won at home in three months. “I said it was pathetic,’’ he added. “What do you want? Me to slit my throat?”
Damyean Dotson had 27 points for the Knicks. Smith (13 assists), Knox (10 rebounds) and Emmanuel Mudiay each scored 19. Center DeAndre Jordan was out because of a sprained ankle, but Mitchell Robinson had 15 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots.
DeMar DeRozan had 32 points and LaMarcus Aldridge added 18 for the Spurs.
The Knicks have hardly been good at home or on the road, as one would expect from a team with a 12-48 record. They entered the night with a 4-24 record at MSG — worse than the 7-24 road mark.
“We didn’t even talk about it,” Fizdale said of the streak. “We didn’t talk about it in the locker room. None of it. Every night, for whatever reason, and that’s why I really like this group of guys: They get over it fast and they get back to work. At some point, you know, the basketball gods will look out for you when you’re doing that. And they just stayed with it and chipped away. We beat a good team tonight.”
The Spurs were a susceptible foe. They’re on the last leg of their annual rodeo road trip, a three-week swing while the rodeo takes over their home arena. It ends with Monday night’s game against the Nets. But unlike most seasons, the Spurs have struggled badly and have lost six of seven games on the trip.
The Knicks led by as many as 23 in the third quarter, but before the period was over, the Spurs had rallied to shrink the deficit to 94-83. And the quarter ended ominously with Knox airmailing a wide-open three-pointer.
San Antonio closed within eight repeatedly, but the Knicks answered every time. Dotson hit a three-pointer with 4:57 to play to push the lead back to 112-101. When it was down to eight again, Robinson sank a free throw and Dotson hit a three-pointer with 2:19 remaining.
The Spurs answered with a three-pointer by Bryn Forbes, but Smith hit a driving layup to put the Knicks up 122-111 with 1:44 remaining.
After a Spurs miss, Robinson dunked and hung on the rim, drawing a foul on the play. He converted the three-point play for a 125-111 lead as Popovich emptied his bench.
In the last minute, Lance Thomas, who had not gotten off the bench in four of the previous five games, hit a three-pointer to give him 16 points and Smith banked a pass off the backboard for Robinson to slam home.