When the final buzzer sounded Sunday afternoon on the Knicks' historically bad performance, it wasn’t long before the calls were going out in the locker room with the bus departure time as the team made a quick exit out of town.
It was unusual to head out two days ahead of the first game on a five-city western trip on an already planned flight to allow the team time to acclimate to the thin air awaiting them in the first two stops, Utah and Denver.
The Knicks gave up 145 points to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, the latest in an alarming set of lapses in defense and intensity. They surrendered a franchise-record 27 three-pointers in a one-sided loss to Boston, were blown out in Brooklyn and watched the Thunder — a team in the early building phase — pile on more points than any Knicks team had given up in regulation since Dec. 8, 1979, when the Kings were still in Kansas City.
Defense is Tom Thibodeau's longtime calling card, and the roster the front office assembled hardly is stocked with players skilled on that side of the ball.
"The thing that sits with me is the disappointment of losing,” Thibodeau said after Sunday’s 145-135 loss. “We have to look at every game and say, 'OK, what do we have to fix, what do we have to prioritize?' . . . But I know if we’re relying on trying to outscore people, that’s not going to work. Our margin of error is small. We have to play with great intensity on every possession.”
Lineup changes have come early in the season, but the team has been without defensive anchor Mitchell Robinson, who has a sprained right knee. Thibodeau said Robinson has begun work on the court but not with contact yet. Quentin Grimes was expected to ascend to a starting role, but he has been drastically limited by a sore left foot. While Jalen Brunson was a smart fit for a team in need of leadership on and off the floor, he has been sought out by opposing teams on the defensive end.
Brunson and RJ Barrett sat out the entire fourth quarter Sunday as Thibodeau sought some combination to provide a spark. , “I wouldn’t have played myself either, the way I was playing defensively,” Brunson said.
With five games in seven nights on this trip — not one of them an easy mark, as Golden State, Phoenix and Oklahoma City will follow Utah and Denver — the Knicks will look to change their fortunes or return home to three days off, the sort of stretch that seems perfect for changes. Is it too soon to see this as a make-or-break stretch for the 6-7 Knicks?
“When you go west, it’s always a tough time regardless of your dynamic,” Evan Fournier said. “It’s about how you respond."