LOS ANGELES -- As the free throw left Xavier Henry's hands, he could tell it was off to the right. He darted behind Iman Shumpert and Amar'e Stoudemire, grabbed the offensive rebound and dunked on Carmelo Anthony with 1:10 remaining in the third.
When the ball went through the net and the whistle blew -- Henry was fouled on the play -- all five of the New York Knicks on the floor turned and walked in separate directions with looks of shock and disbelief on their faces. Coach Mike Woodson crossed his arms and stared aimlessly.
That moment, more than any other on Tuesday night, encapsulated the Knicks’ 127-96 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Knicks are three games back in the loss column behind the Hawks with 11 games left to play.
In arguably their biggest game of the season, the Knicks (29-42) laid a dud. Their effort was nonexistent over the final three quarters. For most of the game, they looked like they were the team playing for ping-pong balls, not the ballclub with a small shot at the postseason.
They were lost defensively, rotating over to 3-point shooters late and allowing big men to get behind their back line of defense. The Lakers nailed 18 of 28 3-pointers (64.3 percent), and more than half of them were wide open. Los Angeles scored 87 points in the second and third quarters -- they scored franchise-record 51 points in the third.
New York’s effort was simply inexcusable.
“You can’t. You can’t explain it,” Tyson Chandler said of the Knicks’ lack of effort. “You can’t really explain it, to be quite honest.”
To make matters worse, the loss came in Los Angeles with newly minted president Phil Jackson in attendance.
After the game, the Knicks had no idea how to assess their lack of effort or another loss to a sub.-500 team.
Chandler said he was "shocked." J.R. Smith used the words "very surprised." Anthony couldn’t even think of a word.
“At this point, there are no words you can put forth and say how we played tonight,” Anthony said. “Everybody saw it. We just didn’t have the energy tonight, the focus tonight. And they did. They played extremely well, and as a result, they beat us the way they did.”
With four games left on their West Coast trip, the Knicks have to play virtually perfect basketball. There’s no more room for error. Not that there was much, anyway.
Heading into the game, ESPN.com’s Hollinger Playoff Odds gave the Knicks just a 9.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. Their projected record was 34-38, three games behind the Hawks’ projection of 37-45.
Another loss cuts that percentage in half, and makes the path to the postseason that much difficult. Have you seen the Knicks’ schedule in April? It’s not pretty. And, that’s skipping past the looming road dates in Golden State and Phoenix -- two teams hungry to not only make the playoffs, but also establish seeding.
The Knicks had an opportunity to capitalize and defeat an inferior opponent, and they didn’t. The confounding season lives on.
“We should be upset,” Anthony said of the team’s morale. “We should be angry about this loss and take it out on Sacramento. That should be the mindset: win by any means tomorrow.”
Woodson shared a similar sentiment: Don’t give up. Look forward to tomorrow and keep fighting for the eight seed.
“We’re still battling,” Woodson said. “Somebody is going to have to win the eighth spot. It’s going to be us or Atlanta. We just can’t keep letting games slip away. Especially tonight, we came out ready to play and just didn’t finish.”
The problem is, it’s probably too little, too late. The Knicks needed to beat the Cavaliers and Lakers to have a shot at catching the Hawks, and they didn’t.
Instead of going out trying with a bang, it ended with a whimper.