HOUSTON - Mike D'Antoni couldn't stop shaking his head as he sat in a chair outside the visitors' locker room at the Toyota Center, still seething after a 105-96 loss to the Rockets.
"We should have won this game," he said later.
It was a battle, for sure, between two hard-working teams, but in D'Antoni's eyes, his team didn't work hard enough. Or maybe didn't want it enough.
"We just didn't quite have the intensity necessary to beat these guys," D'Antoni said.
That showed at a seemingly innocent point of the game, with the Knicks looking so in control with a 13-point lead with 2:02 left in the first half. Lightning-quick guard Aaron Brooks then hit a runner and later drilled a three-pointer to spark a 9-2 run to end the half and close the Rockets' deficit to six.
"I thought a lot of it was right there," D'Antoni said.
Jared Jeffries finally met a point guard he couldn't stop in Brooks, a 6-foot guard who weighs barely 160 pounds. Brooks scored 10 of his 20 points in the third quarter as the Rockets turned up their defensive intensity while getting in sync on offense.
"We gave them a rhythm, man," Jeffries said with disdain in his voice.
The Knicks still managed to take a 79-78 advantage into the fourth, but after Chase Budinger tied it at 82 with 10:57 left, Nate Robinson threw a bad pass that Budinger stole and ran in for a dunk to put the Rockets ahead for good. The Knicks' offense, which scored 32 points in the first quarter, managed only 17 points in the fourth against one of the league's toughest defenses.
David Lee had 26 points and 12 rebounds for the Knicks (15-21), who saw the end of a three-game winning streak. Lee had a great battle for the first three quarters with Luis Scola, who had 23 points and seven rebounds for the Rockets (21-16).
Robinson had 20 points, but the rest of the Knicks' bench, which, without injured Al Harrington (strained left calf), consisted of Jonathan Bender and Marcus Landry, managed only two points (by Bender).
Knicks still like Hill
Speaking of the Rockets, here's why exiled Tracy McGrady's career won't continue in New York: According to several sources with knowledge of the situation, the Rockets would want a young player such as Jordan Hill as part of any deal and wouldn't take back any contracts that go beyond 2010.
Yes, Jordan Hill would be a deal-breaker, even if he isn't playing these days. Although Hill is buried on the bench, the Knicks - who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday - still value their 2009 lottery pick, whom they chose over guards such as Brandon Jennings and Ty Lawson.
"It's been a bit frustrating, a little frustrating not playing, but I understand where Coach is coming from and there are veterans in front of me," Hill said before the game. "All I can do is continue to work hard and just get better when I'm at practice and when I do step on the floor."
D'Antoni opted to go with gritty, undrafted rookie Landry as the eighth player in his rotation rather than the 6-10 Hill. But D'Antoni did say Hill, who has made three appearances in the last 18 games, is "going to get a chance here pretty soon, so we'll see what happens."
Hill isn't the only lottery pick not playing, but he is the only top-10 pick (not counting first overall pick Blake Griffin, who has been injured, and No. 5 pick Ricky Rubio, who is in Europe) who hasn't had a regular spot in a rotation at any point this season.
"I try not to get into that," Hill said. ". . . Some got put into good situations. I got put into a good situation; it's just not the right time being behind a lot of veterans that have contracts up."
Hill certainly isn't interested in going from lottery pick to the D-League in his rookie season. The Knicks, who have a shared affiliate in Springfield but rarely use the D-League, have not yet considered sending the 22-year-old for a development stint.
"I definitely would like it better to stay here," said Hill, who spends a great deal of time working with assistant coach Herb Williams. "We've got all-star potential on our team. Al, David Lee, just going up against guys like that every day, you know, it's just helped me get better. Learning a new level, learning the game . . . I just like being with them."
The Knicks chose Hill for various reasons, none more notable than the fact that their primary target, Stephen Curry, was taken by the Warriors just one pick before the Knicks were on the clock at No. 8. Donnie Walsh passed on Jennings, who had an explosive first month with the Bucks, after he admitted he "didn't have a good feel" for the guard's game. The team opted to go with Hill, a power forward/center, because of his athleticism and perimeter shooting ability and because they needed insurance in case they were unable to re-sign Lee, who last summer was a restricted free agent.
Hill admittedly was out of shape when he showed up for the Las Vegas Summer League and had a poor showing there. He has been unable to distinguish himself as more than a project, even as D'Antoni has made it clear that status means nothing in his rotation. In fact, Hill's lack of playing time proves D'Antoni doesn't feel the need to play him just because he's a lottery pick.
And perhaps there is something to read into the fact that D'Antoni prefers to go with Landry, a worker, than Hill.
"They don't have numbers on their back or how much they get paid. You just say, 'That kid right there is working a little bit harder, so he deserves to play,' " D'Antoni said. "Jordan's working hard, but I just think Marcus has been extraordinary and he's had some really good practices and I like his toughness and his brains. He's an intelligent player on the floor. And that's the reason."