When the grand postmortem of the New York Knicks’ tumultuous 2013-14 season is finally written, it might well include this epitaph:
At the exact moment when they desperately needed something—a basket, a stop, a win, anything—the Knicks simply couldn’t do it, no matter how easy or ripe the taking.
That theme played out to devastating effect Sunday night, with New York surrendering a 17-point lead—and 31 points to backup point guard Jarrett Jack—en route to a 106-100 loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers.
What’s worse, the Cavs did their damage without the services of Kyrie Irving.
The loss kept the Knicks three games behind the Atlanta Hawks (four in the loss column) for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.
We can safely declare the Phil Jackson honeymoon over.
To say the Knicks needed this one—as they’ve needed every one of their previous eight wins—would be an understatement. With the Hawks losing on the road to the Toronto Raptors (96-86), New York had a golden opportunity to make up some much-needed ground.
Instead, the Knicks might’ve just watched their postseason hopes vanish in classic fashion—a comfortable lead swallowed by a tidal wave of isolation offense, anemic defense and dispiriting body language.
Afterwards, the veiled finger-pointing began in earnest.
Fans looking for a fast respite certainly won’t find it in New York’s upcoming schedule, which begins with a five-game West Coast road trip before dates with the playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards and Miami Heat.
Barring an epic collapse from the Hawks, the Knicks are toast, victims of an arrogance borne out of last year’s shocking—and, as it turns out, eminently unsustainable—54-win campaign.
It was an arrogance that told them the 3-13 start was little more than a hiccup ahead of another franchise-saving feast, that their rusty rough edges would be smoothed out by little more than the sands of time.
Now that its playoff fantasies have been laid on the operating table, New York’s attention turns anew to the most critical crucible of all: what to do about Carmelo Anthony.
Around the time the Knicks were launching their now-defunct eight-game winning streak, their chances of retaining Melo—who has stated he will opt out of his final year to become an unrestricted free agent this summer—looked grim.
Like gauze on a gaping wound, New York’s hope-inducing stretch may end up having been scant more than a temporary fix. Unless, of course, New York’s prodigal son and new president of basketball operations, Phil Jackson, can somehow summon some serious Zen gymnastics.
Indeed, in hiring Jackson, owner James Dolan is assuring his fairly fickle fanbase that a new day—one predicated on basketball passion and principles rather than personal grudges and petty vendettas—has finally arrived.
That’s all next year’s business, of course. Right now, impossible as the odds rightly sound, New York’s focus must be nothing short of winning out.
Absurd? Probably. But not impossible.
Save for the Golden State Warriors, New York’s western swing includes dates with four teams—the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz—fully content with bowing to draft-day dreams.
Next up: a pair of home dates with the Nets and Wizards—tough, but with bad blood to spare.
Depending on how the East’s playoff picture shapes up, any or all of New York’s last five opponents—the Heat, Raptors (twice), Chicago Bulls and one more tilt with the Nets—could be looking to rest their starters.
Couple another streak with two or three bad Hawks losses, and the Knicks could find themselves back in it.
Speaking to reporters before Sunday’s game, head coach Mike Woodson stressed the importance of his players not focusing on the horse-race nature of the task at hand, per The New York Times’ Clifton Brown:
It’s good if they lose, but again, it’s about what we do at this point. Our focus is not on Atlanta or Charlotte. It’s on the Knicks and how we’re playing and competing. Every game is important. We just don’t have any room for error. We’re trying to get in.
We just don’t have any room for error.
Such a declaration would’ve seemed impossible heading into the season, when—despite a noticeably improved conference brass—expectations for the Knicks were of a reasonable facsimile, if not an outright carbon copy, of last year’s happy renaissance.
After Sunday’s epic meltdown, however, the only surprise is how that ever-narrowing margin didn’t squash them sooner.