The Phoenix Suns’ hyped-up construction of a superteam arrived at Madison Square Garden on Sunday as a shell of itself. Bradley Beal has yet to play a game and Kevin Durant was a last-minute scratch with a sore right foot. So there was Devin Booker and an assortment of little-known pieces.
For much of the night, the Knicks found themselves fighting uphill because they were outworked by those lesser lights. Finally, the game came down to one play, and it was clear that it would be time for the star.
The Suns put the ball in Booker’s hands and the Knicks forced it out, double-teaming him. But he got it back, a pick freed him from RJ Barrett, and with Julius Randle in front of him, he hit a tiebreaking three-pointer with 1.7 seconds left to give the Suns a 116-113 win.
“This one I told them in the huddle, I knew they were gonna double,” Booker said. “Then catch it, look away, then bring it back to me. It was a shot I’ve imagined in my head multiple times. I feel like I’ve been there before.”
“He just made a great shot,” Randle said. “Fading out of bounds. three-pointer over two people. You got to tap him on the butt and say great shot, and he made a great shot. Ain’t really much you can do about it.”
The Knicks managed one final chance, but Jalen Brunson’s 33-foot turnaround three-pointer rimmed out. His jumper with 21.9 seconds left had tied the score at 113.
But it wasn’t the final seconds that weighed on the Knicks. It was getting outrebounded and outworked. The Suns opened an early 15-point lead as they pounded the Knicks on the glass and made it an uphill battle all night.
“It’s easy to say, ‘No KD, no Beal, one of those nights,’ ” Brunson said. “But those are the things that we can control. We can’t really control the ball going in the hoop. We can’t control the way the refs are calling the game. We can’t control that. Something like that is what we can control, so that’s unacceptable for us and we just gotta be better.”
“I thought the way we came out really hurt us,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “They beat us to the ball. That’s usually a strength of ours. So we got in a hole, used a lot of energy to come back, couldn’t finish it at the end. Low energy. So our initial defense was OK and then second and third effort not there, let them pass the ball out of the double-team easily. And then slow, a step behind. You can’t give people confidence. And then after a guy hits one, he shouldn’t get a second, third and fourth one.”
Booker shot 10-for-25 and scored 28 points, overcoming a rough start. But the contributions from Eric Gordon (25 points) and Jordan Goodwin (14 off the bench) were enough to beat the Knicks (9-7).
Brunson scored 20 of his 35 points in the first half and finished with eight assists. Randle took over in the second half, scoring 21 of his 28 points. But it wasn’t enough to complete the comeback from a 15-point second-quarter hole as the Suns moved to 11-6.
After scoring 17 in the third quarter, Randle came off the bench with 6:55 left in the game and immediately hit a short jumper, closing the gap to 105-104. Brunson then tied the score at 107, draining a long three-point field goal with 4:56 to play.
But the Knicks struggled to get all the way through. Randle was blocked at the rim on consecutive shots on one possession and Booker hit an easy layup for a two-point Suns lead.
Out of a timeout, Brunson missed a turnaround jumper in the lane, but Mitchell Robinson flew through for an offensive rebound and found Randle alone for a three that rimmed out.
Gordon’s jumper upped the lead to four and Randle missed again inside. Robinson grabbed the rebound and was fouled but misfired on both free throws with 2:41 remaining.
Booker missed a jumper and Robinson grabbed the rebound and was fouled — and after a long debate, it was ruled a take foul, allowing the Knicks to get a free throw and the ball. Brunson missed the free throw and Immanuel Quickley’s three-point attempt missed badly.
Quickley stole the ball from Booker and Brunson found Randle cutting to the rim for a dunk with 1:36 left, closing the gap to two. Gordon missed a three, but while chasing the rebound, Brunson fouled Booker and he sank both free throws with 1:18 left.
Quickley drew a foul and again made it a one-possession game, closing the gap to 113-111 with 1:05 remaining. The Knicks forced a 24-second violation, blitzing Booker at the top of the key and then harassing Jusuf Nurkic near the rim. With the clock running down for the Knicks, too, Brunson took over, getting Nurkic on a switch and pulling up for an elbow jumper to tie the score at 113 with 21.9 seconds left.
Before the game, Thibodeau warned about the focus on Durant and his status.
“Every game you go into and you have to prepare for all the possibilities,” he said. “And so, you have one plan where you have Booker in, Durant playing and you have another one where Durant is out. But the challenge is those other guys — sometimes if you overlook those other guys, they can really hurt you.”