MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got Tim Hardaway Jr. back, but their struggles continued Friday night.
Hardaway looked better than expected after missing 20 games with a stress injury in his lower left leg, but the Knicks lost to the Timberwolves, 118-108, at the Target Center. Their ninth loss in the last 11 games dropped them to 4-15 on the road and four games under .500 overall for the first time this season.
But Jeff Hornacek believes the Knicks (19-23) are close to turning things around and figuring out how to win close games. “We’re not far off,” he said. “We’ve got to find another level, another level of toughness, going after balls. If we can get that level, heck, we’ll start winning these games.”
The return of Hardaway certainly gives the Knicks hope. In his first game since Nov. 29, he came off the bench and scored 16 points in 25 minutes. He shot 6-for-13, including 4-for-8 from three-point range.
“I feel good,” he said. “I had a little burst of speed here and there. It was just great to be back out there, get my feet wet, taking hits, taking bumps, finishing at the rim, knocking down jumpers, just trying to do whatever I can to help the team.”
Hardaway’s three-pointer late in the third quarter gave the Knicks an 86-83 lead, but they were outscored 28-6 in the next eight minutes and fell behind 111-92 on Jamal Crawford’s three-pointer with 5:25 left.
“We’re just in a bad moment right now,” said Kristaps Porzingis, who was rendered largely ineffective. “It’s going to be us to get us out of that.’’
Jarrett Jack led the Knicks with 18 points and eight assists. Porzingis had 17 but shot 6-for-19 from the field and had three turnovers. Enes Kanter added 16 points and 12 rebounds. Michael Beasley, whose minutes will be cut with Hardaway’s return, had 13 points in 16 minutes.
Karl-Anthony Towns had 23 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists for the Timberwolves (28-16). Taj Gibson added 17 points and Andrew Wiggins 16.
The Timberwolves broke the game open with a 16-4 run in the first 4:08 of the fourth quarter. Nemanja Bjelica sank two three-pointers and a layup and Towns added a three-pointer and a three-point play in that stretch. The Knicks allowed eight Timberwolves to score in double figures and gave up 94 points in the last three quarters. “Overall, I don’t think it was offense tonight,” Hornacek said. “It was more defense.”
This was the start of a stretch in which the Knicks will play eight of nine games on the road, a critical part of their season, so they are happy to have Hardaway back. They were 11-10 with him at the start of the season, then went 8-12 without him.
Hornacek said the Knicks will be careful with Hardaway for a while, but he already has seen the kind of impact he can make.
“We got off to a good start early on when we were playing a little bit different speed and different brand of basketball,” Hornacek said. “We saw some of that tonight. I think when Tim gets fully healthy, we can put that smaller group out there and really get the ball up the court. We get more threes. So yeah, I think we’re not far off. We’ve just got to shore up some games.”
Said Porzingis, “We got to be better. In these bad moments like we had in this game, we got to fix those and then we got to be able to finish those kind of games. We’re not too far off. We’re in a bad moment right now. We’re going to get us out of there.”