On a stage in which hope is set, under lights brighter than the sun, facing season-defining stakes, the New York Knicks are doing what they do best: shrinking before ultimately crumbling.
Cautious optimism began to spread through New York during the Knicks' eight-game winning streak. Faith was restored in both their playoff chances and future prospects, the latter of which came courtesy of Phil Jackson's arrival.
Before Jackson works his Zen, though, the Knicks have a season to finish, a golden playoff opportunity to squander. And their mission is nearly accomplished.
One eight-game winning streak wasn't enough to completely change these Knicks, who are now losers of two straight. It was a vacation from shameful basketball, from the detestable and costly mishap this season has become—the byproduct of soft opponents and the Indiana Pacers' continued atrophy.
Those eight wins came at a time when the Knicks had almost nothing to play for. Mathematically, they were still chasing a playoff berth. Statistically and emotionally, they were finished, barreling toward a lottery pick they would forfeit to the Denver Nuggets.
Slowly, surely, expectations began bubbling to the surface.
Maybe the Knicks could make a playoff push.
Or maybe not.
In the last two games, the Knicks have failed to seize opportunities they're unlikely to get back. On Sunday, they could have moved within two games of the slumping eighth-place Atlanta Hawks with a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Two. Games. That's nothing.
But instead of demoralizing the Kyrie Irving-less Cavaliers, they disappeared, blowing a 17-point lead, ensuring they remained three games outside the Eastern Conference's playoff picture.
Then Monday was upon the NBA, and it came bearing gifts. Atlanta fell to the Phoenix Suns, giving the Knicks yet another chance. A win against the Los Angeles Lakers would bring them within two games of a playoff berth.
Turns out the Knicks had other ideas.
An eight-point first-quarter lead turned into an eight-point halftime deficit. Backs against the wall, the Knicks responded—by doing absolutely nothing.
The Knicks allowed 51 third-quarter points—a franchise worst—to these Lakers. These injury-addled, star-crossed, Lakers.
These tanking Lakers.
Poasting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal authored a pungently worded recap of New York's latest folly, in which he colorfully encapsulated just how bad the Knicks played:
The Lakers are bad, and they looked bad until FARTDOG intervened. FARTDOG turns players into stars, and then it turns them into gods. It started with a 12-2 run to erase New York's lead—a couple blown assignments and open jumpers, some poor pick-and-roll coverage. Basic bad defense stuff. But then the Lakers gained momentum, and when you have FARTDOG momentum beneath your wings, anything is possible.
The Lakers are not a good team, folks. They're an entertaining bunch, made up of players on one-year contracts fighting for NBA survival, that's for sure. But they're not a good team. They rank 22nd in offensive efficiency, according to NBA.com (subscription required), and are mentioned in the same breath as "Andrew Wiggins," "Dante Exum" and "total disaster" before they are "winning."
Yet, the Knicks made Los Angeles' band of misfits look like two-way sages.
"It was awful, huh," team president Phil Jackson, who was in attendance, said, per The New York Times' Billy Witz.
Awful. Pathetic. Despicable. Whatever you want to call it, that's what it was.
Watching them play was truly disarming. Their offense was a stagnant catastrophe consisting of isolations and contested jumpers, and almost no dribble penetration.
On defense, they were their typical, incapable selves—only worse. Botched switches, blown assignments, nonexistent closeouts, vulnerable against pick-and-rolls, general listlessness—you name it, the Knicks lumbered through it.
Why relive it?
Because it's important.
It's imperative to remember these are the real Knicks. They are underachievers, not a playoff team—sporadically talented, forever clumsy.
We cannot yet preclude them from the postseason conversation. I'm not going there yet. In part because the Hawks aren't built to win; mostly because I still believe the Knicks are better than what they've shown.
But they don't deserve a playoff berth, even if they get one. They're not consistent enough, mentally strong enough.
The latter is this team's greatest pratfall. There is no identity, no fight following a loss. The Knicks don't know how to rebound or cope with disappointment. Losses have come in bunches this season in the absence of resilient leadership.
"We’re in a talent hunt," Jackson said to Witz. "We have to bring in talent."
Somehow, someway, Jackson needs to import fight before anything else.
Concession floods the locker room and postgame comments after defeats. Players sensationalize what should be isolated incidents, interpreting them as forerunners of destruction.
"This is just residual depression from losing a game that they were up by 17 points on Sunday," Jackson said, according to Witz. "It kind of took their hopes away from being in the playoffs."
Lingering depression is no excuse. Hope was still alive after falling to Cleveland. It's still extant now, but barely.
Tougher opponents, actual playoff teams await New York. Games against the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets (twice), Toronto Raptors (twice), Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors, among others, are on the horizon, standing between the Knicks and an improbable playoff berth.
More than anyone else, though, the Knicks are in their own way. They had a legitimate opportunity to move within 1.5 games of the Hawks, and blew it in Knicks fashion.
Second chances have become third chances have becomes fourth chances have become 15th chances, and still, the Knicks seesaw between desperate hope and flagrant dispassion. They're still crumbling when it matters most, when the stage gets bigger, the lights get brighter and the stakes get real.
"I think I'll walk the dog," Jackson told Witz, before leaving Staples Center early.
Why not walk the dog? Why not change the channel?
Why not stop believing?
It sure beats looking on as the Knicks waste recurrent opportunities, little by little, loss by loss, relinquishing what scant control they have over their postseason fate.
*Stats courtesy of NBA.com (subscription required).