March sadness continued for the Knicks, but not for the fans who want them to lose out to get the highest draft pick possible.
The Knicks did make a move in that direction Thursday night, squandering a 13-point second-half lead in a 118-110 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers at Madison Square Garden. Their ninth straight loss, coupled with a victory by the Bulls (24-44), gave the Knicks (24-45) the eighth-worst record in the NBA — and a half-game lead over Chicago.
But for all the talk about the Knicks trying to tank, Jeff Hornacek played his starters and veterans down the stretch. They were playing for the win but didn’t have the size, shooting, versatility or talent to get it done.
The Knicks have lost 17 of their last 18 and 31 of their last 38. They haven’t won in March, or at home since Jan. 30.
“I have never lost that much games in a row,” Emmanuel Mudiay said. “It’s definitely frustrating. I’m not happy about it because I know I’m not a loser. People in here, they’re not even losers. We just have to figure out collectively how we can do it for 48 minutes.”
Michael Beasley led the Knicks with 24 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. Courtney Lee and Trey Burke added 16 points and Kyle O’Quinn 15.
Joel Embiid had 29 points and 10 rebounds for the 76ers (37-30). Ben Simmons had a triple-double — 13 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds — and Dario Saric had 21 points and 12 rebounds.
The Knicks have been one of the worst third-quarter teams in the league, so when the 76ers trailed 68-60 at halftime, they seemed to have the Knicks right where they wanted them.
The Knicks played them even, though, and brought a 91-83 lead into the fourth quarter.This time they waited until late in the fourth quarter to come apart. Leading 104-98 with 5:08 left, they were outscored 15-2 in the next 3:10, and the 76ers ended the game on a 20-6 run.
Burke had been playing well, but Hornacek went back to his starting lineup in crunch time. He said he removed Burke because the 76ers put the bigger Robert Covington on him. Mudiay shot 1-for-4 with a turnover and was minus-14 in the last 7:30.
“Emmanuel had been playing pretty well with that first group,” Hornacek said. “We’ve got to find out who can finish games for us. As we go forward, it might end up being different guys. We’re still trying to find that for even next year.”
The Knicks are headed to their fourth straight season of at least 50 losses, and that draft pick is looking more and more valuable with each loss. It could be in the top eight, and it will be the first draft for Scott Perry as their general manager. The Knicks hope to get someone who can play with Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. for many years and who can help attract marquee free agents in the summer of 2019.
But Hornacek, who could be coaching his final games with the Knicks, is focused on this season. He’s following the organization’s plan for developing the young players, although he really went for the win Thursday.
He said his and his assistants’ approach hasn’t changed amid all the losing. “We come every day to work, trying to work on things,” he said. “We told them, ‘We still have  games to go, we’re still trying to work on things.’ Will it benefit this year? Who knows. But this is all part of the growing process, learning, trying to get better so that heading into next season, you’re that much better. That’s how you have to approach every game. You’re trying to win every game. It’s not like we’re not going to practice and we’ll just show up for the next game. Continue coaching, teaching, discussing, showing guys film and continue to work.”
The 76ers are a team the Knicks can look to as a ray of hope in a very dark time, but the Sixers had many dark days and seasons. They went through an immense amount of losing, injuries and — for lack of a better word — tanking before finally becoming a playoff contender.
In the previous four seasons, the 76ers lost 54, 72, 64 and 63 games, respectively. At least they got high draft picks. They took Embiid third four years ago and Simmons first overall two years ago. Then they acquired the No. 1 pick last year and used it on Markelle Fultz, who has appeared in only four games because of a shoulder injury.