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Nuggets 111, Knicks 105: “The rare actual comeback that leads to a fake comeback”

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So far, so close, and in the end just short.

NBA: New York Knicks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

30 Decembers ago, on a frigid afternoon, I was out in the street with my friend Justin. We were having a good conversation, the kind that effortlessly flows and breaks new ground while always feeling like the same capital-C Conversation, and being young and forever in the moment, and despite having no hats or gloves to protect against the frigidity, we stayed out on the block for hours, pro’ly thinking we were manly for not letting the cold get to us.

After literally hours of exposure, it was time to head home. When I got there, being young and stupid, I went to the bathroom, turned on the water till it was steaming hot and stuck my hands in it. 30 years later, I still viscerally remember the pain of being reminded how it feels to go from numbness to feeling.

Last night the Knicks lost a valiant effort, falling in Denver 111-105. After falling behind by 20 in the first half, New York stormed back like a bat out of hell in the second, only to come up short in the final minutes. In the grand scheme of things, we’re just 10 days removed from the Knicks losing by 37 to these same Nuggets after losing by 44 to the Milwaukee Bucks; losing a hard-fought game late in an arena where road teams are just 3-11 this season and where the Knicks entered having lost 11 straight is unquestionably progress. But that’s the painful part of progress: it leaves you wanting more. Otherwise it stops feeling like progress. The Knicks have played well in 4 of 5 games since Mike Miller took over. I wanted this one. Badly. It hurts to go from numbness to feeling.

The first half quickly felt comfortably numb. Denver was up 11 after the first quarter, and at one point in the second they’d hit 11 straight baskets and gone up 20. Thanks to Frank Ntilikina stealing or deflecting, like, everything, the Knicks cut it as low as 11. Still, the Nuggets shot 57% in the first half and led by 16 at the break, and the Knicks couldn’t hit from deep or get to the free throw line, leaving seemingly little reason for hope. New York’s defense was as bad as it’s looked all year, which is saying something. It was like watching a high school squad defending against a college team.

By the midway point of the third quarter, the game had turned on its head. The Knick defense held the Nuggets to just six points by that midpoint. Elfrid Payton was throwing in lefty lay-ups and halfcourt alley-oops to Mitchell Robinson, and had a double-double before the third was complete. Marcus Morris was en fuego, hitting his first six shots and scoring 16 in the quarter. After surrendering 67 points in the first half, the Knicks gave up just 20 in the third, and entered the fourth down only three.

Kevin Knox, who played his best game in a looong time, followed a Julius Randle fast-break miss to tie the game. A Taj Gibson spin and lay-in gave New York their first lead since 8-6; on their next possession Randle took it coast-to-coast. Frank was out there looking free, easy and breezy. There was reason to hope, and there was no denying the hunger to get this win and fly back to New York with an entirely new sensibility of what this seemingly down-the-drain season could still become. Then along came Nikola Jokić.

Sometimes the best player in a game is hard to tell. Not this one: cometh the hour, cometh the man. In addition to hitting parabolic threes and bullying fools in the post, there were those classic Jokić plays that almost look like dumb luck, only they’re not. There are some athletes — Carlos Beltrán was like this in baseball — who are so athletically gifted it looks like they’re not even trying. Jokić is...not that. But he’s so smart it’s the same effect. After he missed a floater, there was a battle for the rebound. He didn’t pull it down; instead Jokić swatted the loose ball to Will Barton III (because every team nowadays has gotta have someone who’s the third something) in the corner. His three-pointer tied it at 98. Soon thereafter, Randle hit a tough horizontal-fading pull-up to make it 100-98 New York. That’d be the Knicks’ last basket for virtually all of the final six minutes.

Denver re-took the lead on a Jokić three-ball after Robinson and Payton both converged on Murray in the paint off a screen. Morris, who couldn’t miss through most of the third, couldn’t hit a thing after. Maybe when you’ve missed 5 or 6 in a row, give the heat-checks a rest. Still, one of Moses’ miracles is he’s an actual two-way player, so when Barton looked to have gotten free for a breakaway Morris hustled back to bother him just enough to force his lay-up to rim out. If the Knicks were going to lose, they were going to make the Nuggets win it. A slim distinction, but a meaningful one.

I abhor blaming the refs for a loss, so I’m happy to report they didn’t cost the Knicks this game. However, allowing Jokić to repeatedly hook Robinson with that chicken-wing elbow in the post did not help. But the backbreaker was the Knicks missing 10 straight shots (at least) while Denver went on a 14-2 run the last 5-6 minutes, highlighted by a Jamal Murray three-pointer that put them up seven.

The Knicks led most of the homestretch against a dark horse title contender who beat them by 40 ten days ago. That wasn’t what I was feeling as this one wound down. I didn’t care about moral victories; I was pissed they lost. Hurting never felt so good.

Notes:

  • Early on Knox made a turnaround floater after getting the ball in motion off a screen. He also hit a foul-line jumper off a screen and later passed up an open top-of-the-arc three to dribble in ten feet and sink an easy floater. Nice to see him doing work inside the arc rather than settling for the role of Steve Novak’s understudy.
  • Those last 6:00 featured Barrett (3-of-12 tonight), Payton (5-of-13), Morris and Randle (combined 43% from the floor in this one) and Robinson. Tough to win that way. I wouldn’t have minded seeing Knox get a chance to continue the night he was having, though it’d have been tough to pull Morris after the third quarter he had.
  • Whoa.

Ntilikina also must’ve had a dozen deflections.

  • Frank opened by hitting a corner three and a midrange jumper, then driving aggressively in transition into the teeth of the Nugget defense to draw a shooting foul and nailing both free throws. That means he hit the first four shots he took. That may be a career first. There was even a breakaway dunk. He needed a night like this.
  • Frank was pulled earlier than usual in the third quarter after banging the back of his head on the court. Miller said afterwards that he’d been checked by the medical staff, that Ntilikina said he was fine and that the team wouldn’t have put him back out there if he wasn’t cleared.
  • If David Fizdale lost a late lead sticking with a lineup that couldn’t score for 6:00 when Knox and Ntilikina played as well as they did, best believe we’d be hearing about it today.
  • Just seven minutes for Damyean Dotson. I’ll never get it, man. I just don’t.
  • This game was absolutely not Taj Gibson’s finest Knick hour. He finished +7, but Taj — and I like Taj — was killing me last night. A microcosm: after a loose-ball scramble early in the fourth, Miles Marshall Steve Rogers Mason Plumlee ended up with it, flat on his back with nowhere to go like a marooned turtle. Gibson, also ground-bound, stayed that way with his hand raised rather than getting up and attacking Plumlee. Remember the legless zombie from the first episode of The Walking Dead? Well, imagine if Rick, instead of riding away on the bicycle, had just lain there until it crawled over and bit him. That’s what Gibson looked like.
  • Barrett got leveled by Plumlee and Jerami Grant going in for a baseline slam. Barrett doesn’t seem to get the most obvious of foul calls.
  • 16, 9 and 4 for Barton in a great all-around effort.
  • 19 players suited up between the two teams. Six of the 10 Knicks to play and all but one Nugget finished above a negative plus/minus. I don’t get that stat, yo.
  • Jokić vs. M-Rob matching up is like watching a binary code civil war. Either you’re the kind of person that line works for or you’re not.
  • Mitch entered the game having committed just nine fouls in his last 137 minutes; for most of this year, he was averaging nearly triple that. 25 minutes tonight. Keep it up, Mr. Robinson.
  • Not sure if this is related to Mitch’s decreasing foul rate, but he seems more active on the offensive glass of late. Like, really impactful. I need Robinson to be one of the Knicks’ three most pleasant developments by year’s end.
  • I’m not on the “trade Morris for a 1st-round pick” bandwagon, for a few reasons. You’re not wrong if you are, sweetie. But seeing Denver play, all that wondrous ball movement and teamwork, boils down in part to continuity. There are benefits to letting guys grow together. Even if they’re not stars.
  • Mike Breen said Denver would like to send Michael Porter Jr. to a G-League team if they had one. It’s almost 2020. How is it that some teams have minor league affiliates and some don’t?
  • If you could go back in time and have the Knicks draft Porter Jr. over Knox, would you?
  • Wally Szczerbiak, discussing dealing with the altitude adjustment as a visiting player to the Mile High city, said when he played there he’d let his hotel shower run the whole night before a game to get humidity in his room. Fucking ecoterrorist.
  • On this date 40 years ago, Walt Frazier’s #10 was retired. Szczerbiak declared Clyde the “greatest Knick of all-time.” Szczerbiak was two years old when Clyde’s number was retired and was living in Spain when Frazier retired. His ass never saw Clyde play. Few shames in life are as slovenly as revering a reality you never knew.
  • Szczerbiak’s been throwing out some rhyme schemes this road trip. “Putting his defender in a blender,” especially. Don’t cop Clyde’s racket, Szczerb. Szczerb the Herb.

Quoth CaptainMarvelous9: “The rare actual comeback that leads to a fake comeback.” Let’s see what the Knicks might pull off for an encore. Next game is Tuesday home vs. Atlanta. The winner will likely leap from 15th to 13th in the East. The journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single cellar-dwelling rumble. See y’all at Ground Zero.