Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks looks on against the...

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks looks on against the Nets at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Credit: Jim McIsaac

As he tried to explain what he had just seen Wednesday night, Tom Thibodeau’s face was hidden behind a black mask, but it did little to hide his emotions. Frustration, anger, disappointment, all were clear, and with good reason. And Thibodeau wasn’t alone.

The Knicks had blown a 28-point lead in a 111-106 loss to a severely shorthanded Nets squad at Madison Square Garden, capping an 11-day span in which they blew leads of at least 20 points three times.

Their 13th loss in the last 16 games sent the team into the All-Star break with eight days to consider what has gone wrong this season, how drastic the problem is and what changes need to be made.

"You look at everything," Thibodeau said. "What are you going to do? How are we going to manage this? It has to be merit-based. A guy is playing good, he plays. If the team is functioning well when he's on the floor, he should play.

"That's the most important thing. The team has to come first for everyone. This can't be about what's best for any one individual. It's what's best for the group. That's the way it's got to be. We have to do what we have to do. We got a chance to reset here. We all have to take a hard look at what's going on and we got to figure out how we can do it better."

That hard look might not be limited to lineups and minutes. Thibodeau, who earned his second Coach of the Year award last season in his first year in New York, surprisingly has found the heat turned up on him, too. There have been whispers around the NBA that some Knicks front-office officials have pointed fingers at Thibodeau, blaming him for the reworked roster's issues.

"Coach is amazing," Julius Randle said. "I’m riding with Coach every day. He challenges us and prepares us very well every day. So yeah, his message is still ringing clear in the locker room. We’ve just got to execute."

"His message is still strong," Taj Gibson said. "But at the same time, it comes down to the guys on the court."

The Knicks had a 54-26 second-quarter lead cut to 73-66 in the third period on Wednesday night, but they built it back to 91-73 in the first minute of the fourth quarter before the Nets caught them. The Knicks were outscored 38-19 in the fourth quarter.

The Knicks scored 56 points in the game's first 18 minutes and 50 in the final 30.

Fans have pleaded for young players to get opportunities after the front office brought in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier to replace Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock in the starting lineup after last season’s 41-31 campaign. Thibodeau has stuck by his players through struggles, and while he’s hinting at an end to that coming when the team returns from the break, it’s likely too late for a postseason berth.

With only 23 games left, the Knicks (25-34) entered Thursday night's games 3 1/2 games out of the final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference and have the fourth-hardest schedule ahead.

After last season, the franchise may have believed it finally was out of the chase for Ping-Pong balls in the draft lottery, but that might be the reality that it is facing now. It’s just a matter of whether the Knicks embark on this final stretch with the same rotation that got them here.

"The thing is all I think about is winning," Thibodeau said. "I don’t care about any other nonsense, I just care about winning. That’s it. So what’s best for the team, every day come in, put everything you have into studying, putting a good plan together and concentrate on the team’s improvement, whatever it takes. So that’s all I’m locked into.

"I know what losing brings on. You got to block all that out, you’ve got to keep focused on what your job is, get in there and get it done. This is an opportunity for people."

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