DENVER — In the postgame locker room Sunday night at the Pepsi Center Marcus Morris sat in his locker with ice packs strapped to both knees, leaning back exhausted. He and the Knicks had just endured another loss, dropping the team to 6-21. In the past was a coach who was already let go and ahead was an uncertain future with the trade market opening for an underachieving team.
And he was hopeful.
Two months into the season the Knicks were still optimistic that something had clicked even in defeat. The loss to the Denver Nuggets ended a four-game road trip that began with a one-sided loss in Portland and then the first two-game winning streak of the season — albeit against the team with the worst record in the NBA and then a sub-.500 Sacramento Kings squad missing its best player.
So after falling behind by 20 points in the first half against the Nuggets, raising memories of the 37-point loss to Denver 10 days earlier, a comeback effort was at least something for them to cling to on this night. A 2-2 West Coast trip is as good as the Knicks could have hoped for right now.
“I think the biggest thing is that we can compete with anybody,” Morris said. “We showed that. I think we’re starting to build some consistency, get some confidence going in, everybody. I feel like guys in this locker room, we really took a step. We’re really competing with the good teams in this league, teams that have been together a long time. It goes to show you that we’re stepping in the right direction. It’s a long season and we’re trying to turn this thing around.”
It might be too late for that. Sunday not only was the last game of the trip but also signaled the start date for when teams can trade away free agents signed in July, which includes Morris and six other Knicks. With one-third of the season behind them, a coaching change already and a front office that could be gone by summer, too, desperation remains the dominant mood at Madison Square Garden.
While interim coach Mike Miller has provided some stability in the five games since he took over for David Fizdale, NBA sources expect the team to make a push for a bigger name on the sidelines once it is determined just who will be making the call on that.
“We have the opportunity just to live in the moment, live for today and move forward,” Miller said before Sunday’s game. “ . . . I really feel like we’ve told our players every day we get together it’s a new day. Let’s take advantage. Let’s make it the kind of day we want to have. And that’s where it’s at. We’re not looking backward. We’re not looking forward. We’re really playing it in today.”
And for one day at least the Knicks believed that day wasn’t such a bad one — as long as they didn’t look behind them or ahead to the uncertain future. When the Knicks were in the locker room at halftime Sunday, down 16, Miller made some defensive adjustments but mostly implored them to play hard. And they did.
“We kept playing hard,” Frank Ntilikina said. “We didn’t give up on the game. We kept running our stuff and we just stayed the course and kept playing. That’s what got us back in the game. We didn’t get it at the end, but we saw a huge improvement in our team [Sunday] and throughout the whole road trip.”