The Knicks had just completed a road trip, returning home to Madison Square Garden to face the Phoenix Suns, who arrived with the worst record in the NBA.
And early in the fourth quarter the crowd was in full voice, but it was not the welcome home the Knicks hoped for. Instead, the Garden crowd was loudly booing the Knicks every move.
The Knicks could claim fatigue from the road trip and returning to a back-to-back game or bemoan that they lost their leading scorer, Tim Hardaway Jr. to a sore right heel shortly before the game began. But there was no excuse that the crowd correctly would find suitable to remain positive. After leading by seven at halftime, the Knicks fell, 128-110, the boos continuing to the final buzzer.
“We just really stopped competing on the ball,” Kevin Knox said. “They were pretty much getting anything they want offensively. Every play they ran I think they probably converted. On the ball screens we were playing bad. On the ball defense was bad. Together as a team we weren’t really locked in the first half the way we were in the first half.”
The Suns entered the game with an NBA-worst 6-24 record, but after losing 10 straight games they won their last two over Dallas and Minnesota. Like the Knicks, they are plotting for some future product. Phoenix started three rookies Monday — Deandre Ayton, who was the No. 1 overall pick; Mikal Bridges and D’Anthony Melton. And now, with the win the Suns were just one and a half games worse than the Knicks in the race to the bottom.
“We’re definitely depleted, but I don’t want to make that an excuse for the game,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “We obviously played a great first half. We just couldn’t duplicate that. Injuries are a part of it. I don’t necessarily want to put it on that. The guys that played are good enough to help us win.”
The Knicks three rookies started together briefly this season, but two of them, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier, were sidelined with injuries Monday, along with Damyean Dotson and Hardaway. While the Knicks got 17 points from their other rookie, Kevin Knox and a team-high 32 points from Emmanuel Mudiay, it was not nearly enough to make up for the defensive deficiencies.
Devin Booker scored 38 for the Suns while T.J. Warren, who had 17 in the third quarter, scored 26. Ayton had 21 points and 13 rebounds. Jamal Crawford came off the bench to hand out 14 assists.
"Our defensive intensity just went down,” Mudiay said. “Think they kind of ramped it up a little bit. We kind of folded into what they wanted us to do. The defense is really what got us.”
Fizdale had spoken optimistically before the game about the Knicks defense, hoping that they were beginning to get it together. He couldn’t have been happy with what he saw on this night.
The Knicks surrendered 28 points in the first quarter, 31 in the second and then 41 in the third — allowing the Suns to hit 72. 8 percent from the floor in that third quarter. The Knicks were tied at 79-79 with just over five minute left in the third quarter when Frank Ntilikina missed a pair of jumpers and the Suns got a dunk from Josh Jackson on the other end, That triggered a 21-4 run to end the quarter.
Phoenix stretched the lead to as many as 23 points in the fourth quarter before the Knicks embarked on a too-little, too-late run to close within 13.
“We fall into the same thing,” Fizdale said. “One quarter. You got a deflated quarter where we don’t do the same things that we do for the other three quarters and it always comes back to bite us. It’s just something we’ve got to continue to try to figure out as a group and keep working at it, where we can sustain effort for 48 minutes.”