The shorthanded Knicks lost their composure late in the third quarter and allowed the Suns to dominate the final period, providing the newly 36-year-old Chris Paul with his ideal birthday present: an opponent so utterly frustrated that things got physical.
With the loss, the Knicks fall to 37-30. They remain fourth in the Eastern Conference with six games left to go. New York’s magic number to finish in the top six, and therefore avoid the play-in tournament, is three, meaning the Knicks still control their own destiny. Three more wins in the next six games and they’ll be a bonafide playoff team for the first time since 2012-13.
8 years ago today, the Knicks went on a 33-13 run in the fourth quarter to win Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Pacers.pic.twitter.com/WrviaQ8Kw1— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) May 7, 2021
But before falling too deep into dreams about the postseason, we must first accept, digest and move on from Friday’s fruitless effort in Phoenix.
The Knicks were without Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks, who are day-to-day with a sprained left ankle and contused left knee, respectively, so going into the evening it was clear that offense could be an issue. Meanwhile, the contest didn’t tip off until 10 p.m. EST, which is a little late for us East Coast folk. Plus, the Suns were able to allow 8,063 fans into the arena, representing the largest crowd for an NBA game all season.
Like their namesake, the Suns started out hot. Before you could blink, the Knicks were down 13, and Tom Thibodeau had already wasted his challenge on an obvious Julius Randle foul. As usual, Elfrid Payton was doing a pretty good job getting into the paint, but a pretty poor job of generating any offense from his drives.
When Derrick Rose finally entered, Phoenix held a 19-8 advantage. The appearance of Rose woke up Julius Randle, and together they led a 16-2 run, culminating in a Reggie Bullock triple that gave the Knicks the lead.
R3️⃣GGI3️⃣— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) May 8, 2021
12-0 run in the valley. pic.twitter.com/Ois2d5CQnr
At the end of the first, it was 33-30 New York. Randle had 13 points and 7 rebounds. Rose had 6 points and 3 assists. “Maybe the Knicks will pull this one out after all,” some of our brains surely thought.
The momentum remained in the second quarter. The Knicks shot 65% from the field (13-20) in the second period, behind another 8 points from Rose to give him 14 at the half, plus 7 from RJ Barrett, 6 from Taj Gibson, and a beautiful 5 from Obi Toppin. The quarter included the best sequence of the evening, with Toppin blocking a CP3 deep ball attempt and then throwing down a dunk on the other end.
At the break, the Knicks were up 63-56, which is the same halftime score as the last time these two teams played back on April 26, when Paul ultimately ripped out New York’s heart with a series of clutch shots down the stretch.
This time, Devin Booker wasn’t scintillating; he headed into the half with just 8 points on 1-6 shooting. CP3 only had 5 points, and the Suns were led by Deandre Ayton’s 14. The Knicks, meanwhile, had received a combined 31 from the Randle-Rose duo, plus 12 for Barrett. Could they keep up the pace?
For some of the third, they did. But late in the period, the Suns wrestled back control of the festivities, and at the buzzer they took their first lead since the first quarter with two buckets in less than two seconds.
Wow, Suns end the 3rd by scoring two buckets in the last second of the quarter. An ugly turn for the Knicks. Cam Payne steals the inbounds with 0.8 seconds to beat the buzzer with a layup, after a Randle airball leads to a run out and layup in transition. Knicks-Suns tied at 88. pic.twitter.com/UhKRHXGJGz— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) May 8, 2021
The frustration of how the third quarter ended boiled over into the fourth. The Suns were on fire (they hit 54.5% of their field goals in the quarter, including an insane 8-12 from three) while the Knicks were ice cold (29.4% shooting in the fourth, including 2-9 from deep). Midway through the period, with the Knicks down by 11, Taj decided he’d had enough of Chris Paul, flagrantly fouling the point guard and causing a real ruckus.
Taj Gibson gets a flagrant 1 for running into Chris Paul and throwing an elbow at his body. Sent Paul to the floor. Chris Paul walks over to yell at Tom Thibodeau on the Knicks bench. Teams run in to preemptively stop it getting any worse. That got heated real quick for Gibson. pic.twitter.com/fWygEnsy1j— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) May 8, 2021
Perhaps it was an attempt from the veteran to electrify his teammates, but all it did was juice up CP3. Paul nailed a couple of mid-range jumpers soon after the havoc, and by the time Randle received a technical foul for jawing with Jae Crowder, it was clear that the Suns had this one in the bag.
When all was said and done, it was early Saturday morning and the Knicks had lost all control, falling by a score of 128-105. It represents the 7th time this season the Knicks have lost by 20 or more.
> RJ Barrett finished with 23 points, 8 boards and 3 assists, but he shot just 8-22 from the field (36%). His rough starts to games have mostly continued, but against difficult defenses he’s struggled to get it going in the second half the way he had been for awhile. As frustrating as RJ sometimes is, he’s just 20-years-old, and, overall, is having a really promising sophomore season. Still, that doesn’t make it easy to stomach when he’s tossing up bricks.
> Without IQ and Burks, Thibs was forced to give Frank Ntilikina 15 minutes. Sure, Ntilikina put in effort on the defensive end, but his offense was mostly ugly, minus a nifty little dish to Gibson for a dunk that should mostly count as a hockey assist for Rose.
The idea that Frank has a chance to stick around after this season is seeming more and more far fetched. Depending who you are, that’s either unfortunate or a long time coming.
> Bullock continues to befuddle. Sometimes, he looks like a necessary piece, but sometimes he’s just launching jumpers into the ether. On Friday, he had 12 points but shot just 3-11 from the field, including 2-8 from three, and most of his output came in the first half.
> For all of you wondering how Thibs can continue to trust Elf, Friday’s game was a reminder that the coach is really just doing the best he can with the roster he was dealt. Payton is averaging a career low 24.4 minutes per game this season. He’s received less than 20 minutes in nine of the last 10 games. Rose has been spectacular, but he’s been surgically repaired one too many times, so it’s important not to overplay him so that he’s healthy once the playoffs start. Hopefully, come playoff time, IQ and Burks eat up some of the minutes Elf has been gobbling down during the regular season.
> The emergence of Obi Toppin continues. The rookie played just under 15 minutes, recording 8 points, 1 assist, 2 steals and 2 blocks. His second half of the season has been a lot better than his first half. Perhaps the playoffs will bring even more improvement.
Okay, that’s probably enough of this game. Sure, Randle had 24, 11 and 4, but it wasn’t the MVP-type performance we’ve become accustomed to this season. That’s alright, the Suns are one of the best teams in the league. They had six guys total more than 15 points, led by Ayton’s 26, and seven players who scored at least 10.
Sprewell Well Well ripped the words out of my fingers by commenting “this was a tough one to watch.” It most certainly was.
The Knicks play against the Clippers in Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon, followed by the Lakers on Tuesday night. Let’s win at least one. Actually, scratch that. Let’s win both.