April 15, 2024

Short-handed Knicks smoked by Thunder’s bench in late rally

The Oklahoma City Thunder were running so well that their MVP candidate, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, wondered if he was even necessary.

Jalen Williams was slicing up a tough-nosed defense with midrange pull-ups and quick-twitch passing. Josh Giddey, a fellow starter, was grooving with the reserves, too. The New York Knicks held a 10-point lead heading into Sunday’s fourth quarter, which began with OKC’s top player, Gilgeous-Alexander, resting. But that’s when a lineup of mostly backups took over.

The Thunder’s deficit evaporated like a thin puddle in the Sahara. It took only three minutes for OKC to tie the score.

“I was almost like, I shouldn’t go back in,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.

The Knicks probably wish he had his way.

Gilgeous-Alexander returned with five minutes to go. With four seconds left, the All-Star on the other side, Jalen Brunson, banked in a layup to give the Knicks a one-point lead. Less than three seconds later, Gilgeous-Alexander responded with a turnaround baseline jumper to recapture the advantage for Oklahoma City 113-112.

The loss was a heartbreaker for the Knicks, who have now dropped two consecutive games and were hardly thrilled with the game’s officiating, especially regarding Brunson’s runner with four seconds to go. The team believed the point guard got fouled, too.

“Write what you see,” head coach Tom Thibodeau repeated when asked about the play. “Write what you see.”

Unfortunately for the Knicks, anyone who saw Sunday’s game didn’t witness just a possible missed call with seconds remaining. The dynamic Gilgeous-Alexander noticed as he watched his squad roar back from a double-digit hole, and it was impossible to ignore. The Thunder bench caught fire, which meant the Knicks’ reserves caught smoke — and the latter has become all too familiar an occurrence in New York.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drives to the basket against the Knicks. Gilgeous-Alexander scored 19 points, including the game-winning basket. (John Jones / USA Today)

The same motif occurred Friday when Brunson went for a career-best 61 points during an overtime loss. The Knicks wrecked the San Antonio Spurs when their point guard was in the game. When he wasn’t, they couldn’t piece together the offense.

On Sunday, two days after the four-point loss to the Spurs, the Knicks outscored the Thunder by 17 points during the 35 minutes Brunson played. The Thunder outscored them by 18 during the 13 minutes Brunson rested.

“The thing is he’s gotta go to the bench sometime,” Thibodeau said. “And right now when he’s out, we’ve gotta find a way to manufacture some points.”

The collapse without Brunson on Sunday was less typical than others. Oklahoma City scorched at the right time. The Thunder made 13 of their first 14 shots to begin the fourth quarter, which Brunson may not have stopped.

Brunson’s absence affects the Knicks offense disproportionately, as The Athletic detailed a week ago. Since trading away RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, two former constants of the reserve lineups, New York is averaging 123.1 points per 100 possessions, an elite figure with Brunson on the court, and a frigid 103.4 when he’s off. But this goes beyond just scoring; something always seems to go awry without Brunson, whose top-five MVP argument is maybe at its strongest when the Knicks have to compete without him.

It’s not clear how much longer he will need to tape this group together. After all, this team was not constructed to have this flaw.

Instead, the Knicks are supposed to have three more guys. Once again, they were missing OG Anunoby (elbow), Julius Randle (shoulder) and Mitchell Robinson (ankle). And while conversations have swirled for the past two months about the idealized version of the Knicks — one that would include Randle taking a playmaking burden off Brunson, Robinson blocking shots and gobbling up rebounds and Anunoby draining 3s as he controls the defense — the time to make that happen is slipping away.

When asked before the Thunder game if the medical staff was concerned that Anunoby could be out for the season, Thibodeau responded, “We just deal with reality, day to day.”

The reality is that the Knicks (44-30) have only eight regular-season games remaining. Robinson just re-injured the same ankle that he had surgically repaired four months ago. Neither Randle nor Anunoby is participating in contact drills yet.

“I’m looking at it like this is the team we’re going to have,” Josh Hart said after the loss to the Thunder. “I think that’s how we have to approach it, that those guys aren’t coming back and we’ll be pleasantly surprised if they come back.

“I’m not in those medical conversations or anything like that, so I don’t know. … But we’ve got to approach every game and the end of this season that those guys aren’t coming back and, if they do, be pleasantly surprised.”

Sunday’s loss was not some hidden disaster for the Knicks, even if Brunson, Hart and Donte DiVincenzo combined to miss four free throws down the stretch.

The Thunder (52-22) own the best record in the Western Conference, and even without three of their best players, the Knicks stuck with them.

Miles “Deuce” McBride hounded Gilgeous-Alexander all night. Isaiah Hartenstein continued to prove he can be a versatile starting center, manning Chet Holmgren’s perimeter game while walling off the paint. Brunson went for 30 points in his typical fashion. They nearly overcame massive performances from Williams (33 points and eight assists on 14-of-18 shooting) and Giddey (16 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists).

A short-handed squad challenging a title contender, even if it’s an unusually young one, is impressive. Of course, the Knicks may exist only as a short-handed entity.

(Photo of Jalen Brunson: Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE via Getty Images)