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The Garden night had begun splendidly, with “KP Sucks’’ chants from Knicks fans clearly rattling Kristaps Porzingis into a 2-for-10 first half.
Before heading to the locker room, the 7-foot-3 Latvian picked up a technical for badgering the referee.
To boot, for the first time since the preseason opener, rookie Obi Toppin looked worthy of the No. 8 pick. In seven startling minutes, Toppin racked up nine points. He went 4-for-5, with buckets on athletic, powerful drives, capped by him rising above Porzingis for a lefty putback slam.
The 2,000 fans in the stands loved it. It was looking like a night to remember. Instead it was a night to forget and a slice of vindication for Porzingis, even if he didn’t look like the perennial All-Star everyone had him destined for.
The Knicks are no longer a 48-minute team and following their 99-86 loss to the Mavericks on Friday, coach Tom Thibodeau was delayed from his postgame Zoom session for 30 minutes after the final buzzer.
“Our margin of error isn’t great,’’ Thibodeau said.
The 1-2 punch of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett can’t carry the Knicks every night — especially with both of them banged up.
One game after their fourth-quarter collapse in Minnesota, the Knicks disappeared in the second half.
Porzingis put forth a decent third quarter (he finished with 14 points, but shot just 6-for-17). And Dallas’ young backup point guard Jalen Brunson, son of Rick Brunson, a former Knick and an ex-assistant of Thibodeau’s, looked better than Porzingis.
Brunson showed again how the NBA’s college scouts sometimes overthink matters, making him a second-round pick in 2018. Right, the same year the Knicks took Kevin Knox at No. 9 overall.
The Knicks’ third straight loss dropped them below .500 at 24-25 and now they will face the second-hardest schedule in the Eastern Conference the rest of the way — based on current records.
“We’re in a little bit of a funk and we’ve got to work our way out of it,’’ Thibodeau said.
Originally, this season was supposed to be more about development than playoffs. In that vein, at least Toppin showed pizzazz, even if Thibodeau didn’t trust him enough to play him for more than four minutes in the second half.
On this one night, Toppin outplayed Randle.
“His confidence, I’m proud of him,’’ Randle said. “He just looked aggressive and wasn’t worried about making mistakes. So that’s great.’’
Thibodeau hoped Randle would finally get his mojo going, but it never happened. Playing with a sore thigh, Randle shot 5-for-20 and finished with 14 points. Barrett refused to miss a game for the first time this season despite a sprained ankle and had his own brick show (3-for-11, eight points).
Combined, that’s 8-for-31 and the Knicks can’t win that way, no matter how hard they defend. They can’t win by scoring 86 points, even if Thibodeau sometimes thinks they can.
Randle has played 48 of 49 games this season. Barrett has played all 49. Their warrior spirit is refreshing and admirable, but it’s the elephant in the room.
Can the duo continue playing at their past levels as the grind goes on? Unlike the Nets, who have won with multiple stars sidelined, the Knicks can’t rest Randle and Barrett and have a chance.
“I think that we’re at a point in the season where if you play this many games, every player in the league has something right now,’’ Thibodeau said. “That’s pro sports. We have to manage that.’’
Other than Toppin’s outburst and Porzingis’ so-so performance, the only other bright element was the notion Brunson will be a free agent in 2022. By then, his father might be on the Knicks bench with Thibodeau like he was in Chicago and Minnesota.
Did someone say trade? Knicks president Leon Rose is Jalen Brunson’s former agent (his father was Rose’s first client).
Brunson, who was a game-high plus-34 in 25 minutes, put up 15 points with five assists and seven rebounds, shooting 6-for-9. Brunson’s late fake-out of Immanuel Quickley for an easy layup showed his smarts more than his athleticism.
The only time Thibodeau could smile after the game was talking about Brunson.
“I am fond of Rick Brunson — his son is a terrific player and having a helluva year,’’ Thibodeau said. “I’m happy for him, watched him grow up. I remember him from the time he was coming to the Garden to watch Allan Houston and [Latrell] Sprewell play. He was 6 years old and mimicked their moves. He’s become a darn good player and become a great kid too.’’
On a terrible night, at least we can dream.
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