NEW YORK -- The New York Knicks entered Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on a major roll, having beaten their past eight opponents by an average of 14.3 points per game. When they opened up a 17-point first-half lead over the hapless Cavs -- who were missing their best player, Kyrie Irving, as well as No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett -- it looked like the winning streak was about to hit nine.
And then the early-season Knicks showed back up, the Cavs came storming back and the streak was suddenly over. Apart from the blow it deals to their playoff hopes, that’s the most disconcerting thing about the way the Knicks lost to the Cavaliers -- the fact that all the issues that plagued them down the stretch looked so familiar.
The Knicks blew a fourth-quarter lead, making this the 14th time this season they’ve done so. New York has been a poor fourth-quarter team all season -- the team is now 27th in average fourth-quarter scoring margin, having been outscored by 1.3 points per game in the final period.
The Knicks began that fourth quarter with a questionable player grouping on the floor, once again bringing focus to head coach Mike Woodson’s unusual lineup decisions. Woodson sent Pablo Prigioni, Tim Hardaway Jr., Shannon Brown, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler -- a group that features three or four “minus” defenders and had played just four minutes together prior to this game -- onto the court together to start the quarter, and the results were not good. Cleveland outscored the Knicks by three in the three minutes that unit played together, with Stoudemire picking up a technical foul just before a substitution was made.
After the Cavs scored on their subsequent two possessions, the lead was officially gone. Jarrett Jack scored both of those baskets, and he tallied 31 points in all, making him the 15th player this year to set his season high in points against New York. Jack had 14 points and three assists in the fourth quarter alone, as he victimized New York repeatedly out of the pick-and-roll -- the most basic of NBA actions which the Knicks have struggled to defend all season (the video tracking service mySynergySports pegs the Knicks as the league’s worst team at defending both pick-and-roll ball handlers and roll men) -- as he drained pull-up jumpers, slithered his way into the paint for floaters, and found shooters dotting the arc with pinpoint passes.
Raymond Felton, the man tasked with guarding Jack for most of that fourth quarter, said after the game, “Jack came out and did a good job of just hitting shots. He hit a lot of tough shots contested by me, contested by Tyson. He had a good night.” But it wasn’t really that simple. Jack knew he could either get an open jumper or else engineer a switch whenever he wanted by running Felton into a screen set by Anderson Varejao or Tristan Thompson, which he did repeatedly down the stretch. If the jumper came open, he took it. If it didn’t, he simply drove at Chandler, drew extra help and made the right play.
On the other side of the court, New York’s late-game offense once again devolved into a series of predictable isolations for Carmelo Anthony. Many of New York’s early-season losses in close games featured the Knicks going “iso Melo,” with Felton bringing the ball up the floor and simply tossing it to Anthony between the elbow and the 3-point line while the rest of the Knicks stood around and watched Anthony futilely try to create an open look. With the lead dwindling midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday, the Knicks isolated Anthony on Luol Deng on two out of three possessions, and Anthony came away with only two points. Meanwhile, Cleveland generated five points out of its three trips in that time to take a lead it would never relinquish.
This latest winning streak had many thinking the Knicks had finally turned a corner. Sure, they were playing bad teams -- their opponents during the streak had an average winning percentage of just 36.0 percent, and that includes the 51-19 Indiana Pacers -- but they were taking care of business and blowing them out of the water. But between nearly blowing a big fourth-quarter lead against the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night, and actually blowing such a lead against the Cavaliers on Sunday, it’s looking more and more possible that the streak may have just been a fluky stretch of high-quality play in the midst of a bleak season.