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Jeff Hornacek not blaming Joakim Noah for Knicks’ poor first quarters

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Memphis Grizzlies v New York Knicks Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony called it a “must-win game,” but the Knicks looked anything but urgent. New York twice trailed the Denver Nuggets by as much as 21, and without Derrick Rose (back spasms), the team lost its third straight game, 127-114.

Anthony scored 29 points on 10-for-14 shooting, but no other Knicks starters shot better than 37 percent from the field. Kristaps Porzingis scored 22 points, but made just seven of his 19 shot attempts. Brandon Jennings, who started in place of Rose, had 14 points and seven assists, but shot just 25 percent. And New York was outscored by 22 when Courtney Lee was on the floor.

The Knicks (14-13) ended their five-game road trip 2-3. Moreover, they return home with a question coach Jeff Hornacek has to face: How much does Joakim Noah’s shaky play impact the team’s poor first quarters?

“We’re not getting off to great starts, And that’s not all on Jo, we’re just trying to find a combination that’ll get us going,” Hornacek told reporters after the game. “We like his energy and what he can do that way, but the time will come. There are times where we just think Willy (Hernangomez) had the energy tonight. He didn’t look like he was tired at all, so we just went with him.”

On average, the Knicks have allowed opponents to score 32 first quarter points during their five-game trip, a trend that isn’t unique to the road. Noah has started every game during the stretch. On Saturday, Denver jumped out to a 33-22 lead after the first quarter; the Knicks turned to the rookie at center more often than not.

In 28 minutes, Hernangomez recorded his first career double-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks — his brother, Juancho, sat on Denver’s bench all but one minute. The Knicks outscored the Nuggets by seven while its rookie Spanish big man was on the floor.

Noah, whom the Knicks signed to a four-year, $72 million deal over the summer, played just eleven minutes, contributing two points and four rebounds. New York was minus-seven with its starting center on the floor. Reserve big man Kyle O’Quinn blocked a shot in just seven minutes on the court. He found himself on the pine just two games after scorching Phoenix for 22 points and 14 rebounds.

Hornacek said he wasn’t sure how much of an impact Rose’s absence had on the New York’s slow starts, and that he isn’t ready to pull the trigger on a lineup change just yet.

“I think it’s hard to tell ‘cause Derrick hasn’t been in there. There is some concern with the starts we’ve been getting off to,” he said. “Even when Derrick is here, we’re giving up a lot of points in the first quarters. So I don’t think we’re at that point — panic time — yet, but it’s something we’re keeping our eye on.”

Do the Knicks miss Rose more than they thought? ”It sure looked like it,” Hornacek answered. New York is 1-3 in games their starting point guard has missed due to back spasms — 2-5, as ESPN.com’s Ian Begley points out, if you include the games against Miami and Phoenix where he barely played after his back tightened up.

Rose is averaging 16.4 points, four rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. Hornacek says his ability to penetrate the lane and finish at the rim is what separates Rose from Jennings.

“Brandon has the ability to drive in there, too. But I think Derrick’s finishes really draws guys into the lane,” he said. “And then we’re able to kick out from that. Brandon’ll dribble around and throw out to somebody. But I’m not sure another team is as concerned with Brandon finishing at the basket as they are with Derrick. So probably a little bit of an effect there.”

Rose averages 7.3 points per game off drives and shoots 54 percent when attacking the rim. Those numbers put him near the top of the league despite only averaging 9.3 drives per game — the third least among the 17 players averaging at least nine a game.

Next up: Dec. 20 vs. IND