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Knicks fall behind by 28 and then lose to Spurs for the second time this season

Frank Ntilikina of the Knicks steals the ball

Frank Ntilikina of the Knicks steals the ball during the fourth quarter against Patty Mills of the San Antonio Spurs at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The San Antonio Spurs arrived at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night with an eight-game losing streak, the longest in Gregg Popovich’s long run as head coach. But the often-combative coach seemed lighthearted and even optimistic — as long as the topic stayed on his team and not on the nation’s impeachment hearings.

When it was relayed to him that some of his players said he has been positive with them despite the uncharacteristic struggles, he shrugged.

“Well, sure. They’re my players,” Popovich said. “Is that a shock that a coach would be positive with his players? I get mean once in a while. Whether you’re winning or losing, the reasons remain the same why you win and why you lose.

“So you just keep working every day to try to get everything going in the same direction. So in our case, as I said last night, some people have said we’ve lost seven or eight in a row. That’s not true. It’s a hoax. It’s just not true. And I’m going with it. So I’m staying positive.”

Maybe he knew what was coming, because despite the Spurs’ free fall to the bottom of the Southwest Division standings, they entered the game with a better record than the Knicks. And they outclassed the Knicks from start to finish, building a 28-point lead and coasting to a 111-104 win.

The Spurs, who were playing on the back end of a back-to-back set on the road, have two wins over the Knicks this season, and it was hard to tell from this game that they’ve had any problems. Entering the game, the Spurs were 28th in the NBA in defensive rating, but they held the Knicks to 16 points in the first quarter and extended their lead to 68-43 at halftime.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “We were in mud. And they were a desperate team. So we got punched in the face and we dug a hole. Second half, we tried to dig our way out of it, very similar to the first time we played them. We fight ourselves back into the game, but sooner or later the clock runs out.”

“Just a bad start,” Julius Randle said. “You do that, you have to play perfect down the stretch. We gave ourselves a chance, but if we eliminate the start, we probably win by 20.”

That seemed like a reach on this night. The Spurs (6-11) looked like the Spurs, the team that has made the playoffs 22 years in a row. And the Knicks looked like the Knicks, a franchise that . . . hasn’t.

“They’re the Spurs,” Fizdale said before the game. “I never can let down my guard against them. I just feel like they’re the type of team and the type of culture, they just keep chipping away at it and they figure it out based on their roster and their personnel. At some point, they will get it going again.

“Like I said yesterday, we do not have the luxury as a team to look at anyone without utter respect. For what they’ve done throughout their history and even guys on the team and what they’ve done, we really just have to respect that team. They’re a wounded animal right now. I know they’re hungry for a win and so are we.”

Marcus Morris led the Knicks (4-12) with 20 points. Bobby Portis added 16 and Frank Ntilikina had nine points, nine assists and six steals.

LaMarcus Aldridge led San Antonio with 23 points and DeMar DeRozan scored 21.

The Knicks cut the 28-point deficit in half in the third quarter but saw the Spurs build it back to 19 with 7:48 to play. The Knicks came back again, helped by Morris’ four-point play. He hit a corner three-pointer, was fouled on the play and sank the free throw with 3:57 remaining to close the gap to 105-96.

After an air ball by the Spurs, RJ Barrett finished off a break with a tough layup and the deficit was down to seven. Derrick White threw up an air ball from three-point range and the Knicks gave the ball to Barrett again, but this time his drive rimmed out.

That Barrett drive with 3:30 left would be the Knicks’ last field goal of the night until Randle’s dunk with 9.4 seconds remaining.

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