As the Knicks offense went cold down the stretch Saturday night, and a double-digit fourth-quarter lead over the Sixers dissipated in a matter of minutes, a familiar sense of dread swept over players and coaches, including Jeff Hornacek and Carmelo Anthony: Please, not again, they thought.
When Jahlil Okafor buried a floater in the lane with nine seconds remaining to put Philadelphia ahead by a point, it marked the fifth time this season the Knicks squandered a double-digit fourth-quarter advantage.
Obviously, Anthony helped the Knicks avoid another embarrassing loss with a buzzer-beating jumper. But that shot doesn’t change or eliminate a glaring flaw with this team: It can’t close out games consistently. And while there are countless reasons behind this unsuccessful season — erratic defense and off-the-court distractions, to name two — the Knicks’ poor fourth-quarter play shouldn’t be overlooked.
“The way we closed the game out — we can’t let that happen,” Anthony said after Saturday’s win, his frustration evident. “This is not new to us. We’ve been in this situation before. We got to figure this out. That’s what we have to get better at as a team. Sometimes we do it right, and sometimes we don’t.”
Why does it keep happening? Why can’t the Knicks pull away late it games? Is it nerves? Is it just bad luck? Do players tighten up in the closing minutes?
“Towards the end of a lot of games, it’s kind of happened like that for us,” said Justin Holiday. “I don’t know if it’s the other team coming at us a little more. I guess if we had the answer to that, we’d stop doing that. But I just think it’s basketball at times. It’s a game of runs.”
But it’s a problem the Knicks have faced time and again this season.
The first signs of late-game mishaps came on Nov. 16, when the Knicks hosted the Pistons.
New York led by 11 points with 4:09 left in regulation. The Pistons then went on a 13-4 run to cut the deficit to two points with 30 seconds remaining.
Detroit never tied the game, so it technically doesn’t count as a blown double-digit fourth-quarter lead. The Knicks pulled out a 105-102 victory. But the performance foreshadowed contests to come.
On Nov. 30, the Knicks hosted the Timberwolves. They led by 16 points with 8:30 left in regulation. Minnesota then went on a 22-6 run to tie the game with 49 seconds remaining. Anthony hit a game-winning jumper to prevent a loss in a very similar situation to Saturday night.
On Jan. 4, the Knicks built a 14-point lead on the Bucks with 11:40 left in regulation. Milwaukee then went on a 16-4 run to pull within two points. Later, Giannis Antetokounmpo buried a fadeaway buzzer-beater over Lance Thomas to win the game, 105-104. It was Milwaukee’s only lead of the fourth quarter.
On Jan 11 in Philadelphia, the Knicks led the Sixers by 13 points with 7:26 left in the game. The Sixers finished the game on a 27-13 run, capped off by T.J. McConnell’s buzzer-beating jumper from the baseline.
On Feb. 8 against the Clippers — the night of the Charles Oakley altercation — the Knicks led L.A. by 10 points with 9:49 remaining in the final period. The Clippers went on a 21-9 run to claim a two-point lead. They eventually won the game, 119-115, after Melo missed a potential game-tying three with eight seconds remaining.
Then came Saturday’s meltdown, which was eerily similar to the Jan. 11 game in Philly. The only difference this time was Anthony hit the game-winning bucket instead of McConnell. But the play in the fourth quarter was equally putrid.
“We got tentative,” Hornacek said of his team’s offense down the stretch. “We were up by 10, four or five minutes to go, and then we started walking the ball up the court every time. Didn’t play with any pace. We didn’t go through the offense quickly.”
Hornacek believes the solution is maintaining an aggressive mentality when the Knicks have the lead in the fourth.
“We’ve got to keep being on the attack,” he said. “We can’t slow the game down because you’re up 10 points — 10 points, teams can get that in 40, 50 seconds.
“It’s a tough game. Swings can go quickly. And the biggest thing for us is we have to play the last five minutes of the game almost like it’s the middle of the first quarter … with the execution, with the quick movements, instead of just walking it up.”