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Knicks’ loss to Grizzlies comes with painful question


Seconds after the final buzzer, the fake noise machine was turned off and the Garden was dead silent — like the Knicks’ offense.

It’s not a catastrophe. The Knicks still have five victories after nine games.

In 2019-20, the Knicks didn’t notch their fifth win until the season’s 25th game, and only after David Fizdale had been fired and Mike Miller had been promoted. Nevertheless, this stunk, it really stunk — this 101-89 home loss Friday to the rebuilding, no-name Thunder.

By any standard, this was a nightmare offensive performance, as empty as the blue seats after the Knicks had won five of their last six. Maybe it was seeing Miller as an assistant on the Oklahoma City sidelines that reminded them of last season’s losing ways.

Or maybe the Knicks just got tired legs after all the minutes their important players have logged. Yes, that has been pegged as the lone concern about esteemed coach Tom Thibodeau.

RJ Barrett and Julius Randle ranked as the top two in the NBA in minutes entering the game.

Randle looked too much like last season’s Randle. He was held scoreless in the first half. Then in the fourth quarter, Randle dribbled the ball lazily upcourt and the pride of Queens, Hamidou Diallo, stripped the ball from behind and raced in for a layup for an 11-point Thunder lead.

Knicks
RJ Barrett has the ball knocked away from him during the Knicks’ loss to the Thunder on Friday.
AP

Moments before, Diallo (who finished with 21 points and 11 assists) had tipped in his own miss. Ancient point guard George Hill had dribbled unbothered for a layup — too reminiscent of the past several years.

Each club entered the pandemic season perceived as tanking and stockpiling draft picks. Each team has defied low expectations, with the Knicks now 5-4 and the Thunder becoming a .500 team Friday.

This was a lousy loss against a club that starts guys like Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort, who has the league’s best name and best body, but is a defensive specialist. Dort daggered the Knicks in the fourth quarter with a game-sealing 3-pointer.

Also in the Thunder’s rotation is rookie Aleksej Pokusevski, who entered the game shooting 9.5 percent, but who hit two big 3-pointers in the final period.

Thibodeau’s Knicks were off to the franchise’s best start since 2012-13 entering the evening.

ESPN’s new outspoken star, Kendrick Perkins, touted the Knicks’ new offense as a key to their revival. But Perkins put the hex on the Knicks, who shot 35.8 percent versus the Thunder.

Thibodeau said he felt that after the Knicks lost a first-half lead, they stopped moving the ball.

“We tried to get out of it individually,’’ Thibodeau said. “We got into it together, we got to get out of it together.”

Perkins was the Celtics’ center for three seasons when Thibodeau was Doc Rivers’ assistant coach in Boston.

“In the time he was off in his two years, he reevaluated himself and he came back a different coach,’’ Perkins said on ESPN before Friday’s game. “Because some of the plays that they’re making and some of the freedom that they have on the offensive end — I never saw a Tom Thibodeau team have so much freedom. But I love it.”

Soon, Thibodeau will get credit for inventing the synthetic protein that keys the new vaccine. Seriously, Perkins’ remarks on national TV deserve further inspection before confirming its veracity.

They are playing at a faster pace, hitting 3-pointers with a higher efficiency and moving the ball better than they did under Jeff Hornacek, Fizdale and Miller.

But as far as X’s and O’s and more freedom? They were still ranked 28th in scoring average (104 ppg) before Friday’s brick-a-thon. Their offense will remain an issue and they will need injured sweet-shooting swingman Alec Burks back sooner rather than later.

Players who have stepped up in the clutch, such as Austin Rivers and Immanuel Quickley, weren’t on Friday. Rivers even missed a 3-point shot in the fourth quarter.

And Quickley looked like a second-round pick — finally. Quickley had his worst night as a pro — going 1-for-9 and almost breaking the backboard on a too-hard floater.

“I still see pretty vanilla on that end,’’ said former Wizards, Hawks and Raptors scout Bryan Oringher, who wove a two-part scouting review of the Knicks’ offense and defense Thursday on his YouTube channel. “But they’re definitely defending.’’

Randle’s been a different player after his extended boot-camp offseason in Dallas. Randle has been defending and tearing it up offensively, with All-Star numbers of 23.1 points, 12 rebounds and 7.4 assists before Friday’s foul-plagued dud.

“On both ends of the floor, we didn’t play for each other,’’ Randle said.

Oringher still isn’t certain if this is the “fluky’’ Randle or a new Randle going forward, saying the southpaw from Texas has been playing “out of his freaking mind.’’

“He’s doing what he did last year,’’ Oringher said. “He’s just doing it better.”

Thibodeau has shown a knack for sticking with the right players in the fourth quarter — a cardinal sin of Fizdale’s. But Friday those players looked weary, especially Barrett.

The painful question is whether it’s the start of a trend.

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