New York Knicks searching for identity amid 3-game skid


NEW YORK — After the New York Knicks lost their third straight game, and for the fourth time in their last five, against the Denver Nuggets Saturday afternoon, All-Star forward Julius Randle said it’s up to him and his teammates to decide what kind of season they want to have.

“I have to be better. Everybody has to be better,” Randle said after New York’s 113-99 loss to Denver, a deceiving scoreline from a game that saw the Knicks trail by 30 with eight minutes to go. “I’ll take responsibility for the team. I’ll take responsibility for myself. That doesn’t bother me. At the end of the day, I just wanna win. I think everybody … well, I know everybody in that locker room wants to win, too.

“We gotta look ourselves in the mirror and decide what we want the season to be. I know what I want it to be. I know what the guys want it to be. But we have to commit to it, and that’s just really what it is.”

Last season, New York was one of the NBA’s biggest surprises in Tom Thibodeau’s first season coaching the team. Randle had a breakout season and became an All-Star for the first time, while Thibodeau won his second NBA Coach of the Year award on the back of a team that ground out wins behind an elite defense.

Both Randle and Thibodeau said Saturday that this is a different team than last season. It is certainly playing like one. New York has slipped from fourth in defense last season to 19th after Saturday’s loss, and the offense improving from 22nd last year to 15th this season hasn’t been enough to make up for that slippage.

And as Randle, Thibodeau and Knicks forward R.J. Barrett addressed the media Saturday afternoon, each — not surprisingly — harped on the defense as the thing that has to get better after Denver shot 52% from the field and made 20 3-pointers.

“I think just our effort,” Barrett said, when asked what it will take to fix it. “That’s really what defense is, is just effort. Thibs is a great defensive mind, so it’s really just up to us to bring that intensity and that urgency to play defense and get stops. … We just gotta find it. That’s it.”

“There’s no magic to that,” Thibodeau said. “We got into it together, we’ve got to get out of it together. It’s players, coaches, everybody.

“Where does intensity come from? It comes from maximum effort and maximum concentration. That’s where it comes from. So we’ve got to do those two things.”

The only magic that happened on the court inside Madison Square Garden Saturday afternoon came from the Nuggets — specifically, center Nikola Jokic.

While his two co-stars in Denver remain out with long-term injuries — Michael Porter Jr. following back surgery, Jamal Murray recovering from a torn ACL he suffered this spring — Jokic did whatever he wanted to the Knicks, finishing with 32 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.

He looked every bit the part of being the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player — a performance he mused was benefited, in part, by attending Meadowlands Racetrack Friday night to take in some harness racing.

“Actually, maybe,” he said, when asked if he was inspired by his trip to the track, adding nine drivers came to watch Saturday’s game.

“Maybe I need to go to the horses every time I travel. Maybe the front office or someone needs to check that out.”

While Denver sorts out future tracks for Jokic to potentially visit, the Knicks were left to pick up the pieces after yet another loss. Although there were positives to take away from Tuesday’s loss in Brooklyn, and even from Thursday’s big comeback before losing here to the Chicago Bulls, there was nothing positive to take away from this one.

Jokic’s presence was also a reminder of something Randle readily admitted: that the Knicks cannot win games by relying on one player, like Denver can. Instead, they need to play as a collective unit, at both ends of the court.

“We’re going to win games with our defense,” said Randle, who scored 24 points to go with seven rebounds and eight assists. “That’s who we are. We’re not the superstars, three, four superstars on the team like Brooklyn or all these other teams. We’re a team. How we were last year, how we have to be this year as well, we have to win games with our defense.

“I just think we gotta understand that in order to win games we gotta play really hard, extremely hard. We gotta have game plan discipline, and we gotta win games on defense. If our offense is great, great. That’s just a bonus. But who we are as a team, how we built this team and this culture is just fighting defensively, the togetherness, just the effort, the hustle plays. I feel like that’s what the city of New York loves. That’s what the fans love — when they know we’re out there giving it our all.”

There wasn’t a lot of love coming from the New York fans Saturday, as boos rained down upon the Knicks throughout the game — and especially after New York managed to cut Denver’s lead to 69-63 early in the third quarter, only for the Nuggets to rip off a 23-3 run to blow the game open.

That allowed Jokic, who only played just 27 minutes, to sit for the entire fourth quarter. Thibodeau, however, went back to Randle and several other starters down the stretch, even with the game well in hand.

One player who didn’t see the court, however, was Kemba Walker, who has now been a healthy scratch in each of the last three games. Thibodeau said his decision to drop Walker from the rotation won’t be changing, but that if the Knicks don’t start turning things around, other changes could follow.

“The thing is, if we’re not performing well, look, there may be more changes coming,” Thibodeau said. “That’s the thing. I like our group, I like the way they approach it. We all put our stuff together. We’ve got to focus together and we’ve got to work our way out of it together. That’s the way it is.”

But while the Knicks dismissed the booing, they can’t dismiss their record, which has now dipped below .500, nor their place in the Eastern Conference standings. After Saturday’s loss, New York now sits in 11th place and one game under .500 — though that puts New York just two games out of sixth place, and one out of a three-way tie for eighth in the packed East standings.

The focus for now, however, is directed internally, as the Knicks will take the next couple days to sort things out before heading to San Antonio, Indiana and Toronto for a three-game road trip starting Tuesday.

“Every team has a game or a couple games like this during the season, so [I’m] not too worried about it,” Barrett said. “Like I said, we just gotta fight. At the end of the day, all the X’s and O’s, all that doesn’t matter.

“We gotta play defense. We gotta fight and fight together for the whole game and just do whatever it takes to win.”

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