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Suns 120, Knicks 112: “We were supposed to win this game”

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If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d be celebrating a four-game winning streak.

NBA: New York Knicks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“Angry people are not always wise,” Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice. I’ve been re-watching the BBC mini-series the past few nights. Whereas Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy clashing before finding their way past each other to each other never gets old, fourth-quarter collapses on cross-country road trips got old years ago. The Knicks led most of the way in Phoenix and were in it late before succumbing 120-112.

New York got a boost an hour before tip-off when Elfrid Payton arrived. Payton welcomed a baby girl into the world yesterday, but even the miracle of life pales when measured against a potential Knicks four-game winning streak. Payton looked for his shots early and found them. The Knick offense was as fine as the English countryside.

Later RJ Barrett gave us this slantways, lefty Jordanesque finger roll. Usually finger rolls allude to George Gervin, but this move, especially Barrett’s lower body on the spin and release, was classic MJ.

There were other promising signs. After picking up his second foul on a mildly dubious call, Mitchell Robinson was hit with a technical foul, reminiscent of Mr. Darcy defending his initial marriage proposal to Lizzie: “Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just.” Damn straight, Mitch.

Also, Wayne Ellington (making his first appearance in nearly a month) playing alongside Reggie Bullock, Kevin Knox and Bobby Portis created absolute acres of open space for Frank Ntilikina. As I was writing that note down Frank drove the lane and kicked out to Knox, who hit a three. New York led by eight entering the second, and after Bullock hit his first three shots I thought “This guy’s better than I realized. How could four teams have let him slip through their fingers?!” Then he missed a heat check from barely inside the center court logo en route to clanging seven of his last eight shots.

The Suns pulled within two, but after a Barrett straightaway three and a Julius Randle three-point play over Mikal “It’s A Cruel Business” Bridges, the seemingly natural order was restored. Bobby Portis continued his prolific production of late, and after this sequence the Knicks went up 11, the high water mark of the night.

The second half opened with Barrett guarding Ricky Rubio, ostensibly because Devin Booker, Phoenix’s best scorer, required a higher class of defender. While that defender stayed on the Knick bench, Payton tried, tried and tried again, to no avail. The Suns put the Knicks in the penalty with 7:30 left in the third, but that only matters if you hit your free throws, and the two Knicks who got to the line the most, Payton and Marcus Morris, missed half their 16 free throws; the rest of the team went 12-of-14. New York started turning the ball over, too, and before you knew it a Kelly Oubre corner three put the Suns on top for the first time since the first quarter. I think this was it.

Could’ve been this one instead.

Hard to say, given that Oubre hit five triples en route to 29 points. The point is, he was cooking and so was Booker, and the Knicks were gonna have to pick up the pace to hang on. Their bench outscored the Suns’ 47-9, so Oubre and Booker outscoring the five Knick starters by themselves means there must’ve been some late-game dramatics. Word.

The back-and-forthiness kept escalating. Ricky Rubio ran a magical pick-and-roll to draw Frank and Mitch to him and find Aron Baynes alone underneath. Portis hit a lefty post-up bank shot. RJ found Robinson for an alley-oop, the kind where the road crowd oohs in a way that lets you know a few thousand people just realized who Mitchell Robinson is. Positive reinforcement is said to aid with the creation of memories, so after this those thousands will never forget:

I hear a lot of shit-talking about Booker. Obviously his (awful) teams have never won much, and he’s no defensive stalwart. But he’d have to be worse than Enes Kanter for his defense to eclipse what he brings on the offensive end. This tough bank shot put Phoenix up for good.

What’s worse than getting your three-pointer blocked? When the defender who blocked you leaks out ahead of you for a breakaway lay-up and you compound your misfortune by fouling them for no good reason.

The Suns dominated the glass down the stretch, and after missing all nine of their threes in the first half they’d hit 10 of 19 in the second. When the game reached the height of the climax, the Knicks collapsed. They couldn’t hit and they couldn’t get the looks they wanted. Your fourth quarter in a nutshell: with three minutes left, Barrett and Payton got out on a two-on-one. RJ could barely manage to not turn the ball over, and with 16 left on the shot clock and the other three Knicks having barely made it up the floor — and yes, it’s fair to ask how one-third of the shot clock was up and most of the team wasn’t even involved in the offense — Payton, a 27% shooter from deep, missed a contested three over Baynes, who’s a half-foot taller than him.

“And this,” Mr. Darcy replied after Lizzie rejects his marriage proposal with extreme prejudice, “is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed!” I don’t mean to dump on the Knicks. They’re a 10-25 team that lost to a better team in the first game of a four-game West Coast swing. They’d have to win six in a row to equal the Suns’ winning percentage. I get all that.

Still...whenever they start to have any success, any at all, I imagine we’re on the ground floor of an unimaginable Knick renaissance, one where Mike Miller turns out to be Red Holzman, and Ntilikina enjoys a Giannis-like ascendancy to superstardom, and Morris ends up staying long-term as a leader and mentor who also happens to shoot 45% from deep the rest of his career, and a few years from now Mitch is Finals MVP and Julius Randle is holding the Larry O’Brien trophy and we’re all amazed at how far we came, and how quickly.

I’m angry about this loss, which is probably not wise. After all, it’s important to be flexible. “It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion,” Austen wrote, “to be secure of judging properly at first.” This isn’t a rebirth. This isn’t a .500 team. This isn’t even a .300 team. This was a late collapse on the road to a superior opponent. Before any renaissance, there are first the dark ages. Keep praying for the light, comrades.

Notes:

  • This was Booker’s fifth straight game with 30+ points, tying the franchise record held by Charlie Scott and Charles Barkley.
  • Another big night for Oubre, who’s doing that more and more. Remember: last year the Wizards traded him away for 43 games of Trevor Ariza.
  • Oubre busts out a bit of the KD shimmy as part of his free throw routine. Even on Oubre it looks cool. Amazing that a player as cornball as Durant can be so stylistically delicious in all phases of the game.
  • On one sequence Oubre got ahead on a breakaway, dunked, then got a taunting technical for being remotely demonstrative toward Randle after Randle got away with a push. Not a big deal, but it did remind me how unlikable the Suns have been in recent years. Having adopted the Mike D’Antoni Suns as my second team during the depths of the Isiah regime, it saddens me to dislike a Phoenix team.
  • The box score says Payton only had two turnovers. The box score lies.
  • I can’t find any evidence that Payton had any children before yesterday, but I assumed that couldn’t have been his first-born. Just ‘cuz I can’t imagine rushing back to work the day after my first child was born. I’m not judging him; every family is unique. But I can and will take a day off for any one of a hundred reasons. Best believe.
  • If you’re wondering why the Knicks’ best perimeter defender played 16 minutes in a game when the opponent’s premier perimeter player was scorching hot, get in line.
  • Frank came out with a few nice, aggressive moves, scoring after attacking the defense off the dribble.

He even knocked over Oubre on a drive. Before you Frank trolls dig your way up into the light: yes, I’m praising him for something I wouldn’t point out with other players because most of those other players weren’t drafted as projects and have less than two years NBA experience and not much top-level comp before that.

  • Mitch is starting to have a Revis Island effect, not only when he’s the primary defender but when bringing the weakside help, too. As soon as he inserts himself into the action, the other team isn’t scoring. They just aren’t, period.

In a recap a while ago I wrote about Frank and RJ being the two brightest points this season, and the hope that Mitch would join them. He’s not only blossoming into a bright point, he’s growing from an impact player to the difference-maker. Last season Robinson was the best thing to happen to this team, but that also felt like an indictment; the limited rookie shouldn’t carry that weight. Now I’m wondering how far Robinson can grow. Can he be the third-most important piece on a contender? The second-most? What is his ceiling?

  • Portis has now scored 17, 17 and 20 the past three games. He’s also fourth among all reserves in rebounds. And yet, though I appreciate his offensive punch, I feel nothing for him. While living in Buffalo I once went to bed with a lover for the first and only time, and it was immediately apparent they were not right for me, they did nothing for me, it was just all wrong. I told them I had to go because I wanted to call my father and confront him about some deep personal conflict. I didn’t care enough to come up with a good excuse; I just wanted out. The Knicks could trade Portis tomorrow for 43 games of Trevor Ariza and I wouldn’t mind.
  • I watch Deandre Ayton put up 15, 13 and 5 assists, and I watch Mitch, and I marvel that only about a year ago almost all Knick fans would rather have had Ayton, and now many of those same fans would cringe at the thought.
  • Watching Ayton guard Payton, I wished this game was in Dayton. Or Creighton.
  • Visually, the Knicks wearing their blue & white alternates coupled against the Suns in their orange jerseys was stunning.
  • Seeing NBA soccer, in its aesthetic of play, becoming more and more like soccer with hands is really something to see. If you dig, you dig.
  • Reggie Bullock’s last name is pronounced “Bull-OCK.”
  • Monty Williams was drafted by the Knicks in 1994. I remember Marv Albert back then talking during a broadcast about Monty riding to practices with then-teammate Doc Rivers. Now Williams is in his sixth season and second team as a head coach, and Rivers has coached 21 years with three teams, and that, along with an inexplicable long-running pain in my elbow and memories of the horrific build-up to the horrific invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq triggered two nights ago thanks to our Nazi president*, are what getting older feels like.
  • I know some of you come here to escape the real world, and resent any references to politics. If I didn’t fear a ton of Persians and Arabs and Americans were going to die soon because of this country’s favorite role-playing perversion, I might consider treating a sports blog like a safe space.

Quoth felinequickness: “We were supposed to win this game.” Next game is Sunday afternoon at the Clippers. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a 10-25 team in possession of a match-up with a 25-11 title favorite with two MVP-caliber players and home-court advantage must be in want of a whupping. Translation: we’re not supposed to win that one.

Fair enough. Bring your hopes. See you then.