No lead is safe for Tom Thibodeau’s reeling Knicks

You would like to think, if you are a Knicks fan, that there might be an option to laugh to keep from crying. Seriously: Was there one Knicks fan around 8:40 Wednesday night who wasn’t involved in a text thread in which someone surmised, “This is going to be a disspiriting loss”?

That was around the time the Knicks’ lead over the Nets had swelled to 28 points. That is supposed to elicit laughter. But Knicks fans know better than to exhale. So what followed was every bit as inevitable as it was unsurprising. The disgrace attached to the final 2 ½ quarters of this 111-106 Knicks loss was rancid, and it cannot be minimized.

For the third time in 11 days, the Knicks grew a lead of 20 or more points.

For the third time in 11 days, the Knicks blew aa lead of 20 or more points.

And this one had a little extra sting to it, for kicks and giggles: After letting the Nets creep back in the game with a mailed-in start to the third quarter, the Knicks actually built the lead back up to 18, 91-73 , with just under 11 minutes left in the fourth. That means the Nets somehow outscored the Knicks by 24 points in the final 660 seconds of the game.

That ought to be nearly impossible.

Except the 2021-22 Knicks keep raising — or is that lowering? — the bar on what’s actually impossible.

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Tom Thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau
Jason Szenes

“Nothing good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, shaking his head, when asked about another calamitous collapse in what’s becoming quite an unsightly collection of catastrophe. “We have to understand the intensity of the fourth quarter. When you have a lead like that it’s about management of the game. You have to take care of it. You can’t play recklessly.”

What’s left to say about this team, which is now an unsightly 25-34 heading into the All-Star break and will emerge with the hardest part of its schedule still ahead of it? Surely the voices inside the Garden and elsewhere now baying for Thibodeau’s job will clear their throats and yell louder. And what are you going to tell them, that they’re nuts?

(To be clear, as I wrote Wednesday, it’s wrong to fire him. But he’s sure making it harder to defend that position.)

Surely those who were convinced a team that builds itself around Julius Randle as its alpha dog will play told-you-so at the top of its lungs. And what are you going to tell them, that their lying eyes aren’t seeing what everyone else is seeing?

“I wish I had an answer for you,” Randle said, after pouring in 31 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, though he was once again unable to help halt another rockslide. “I feel like we should be better than where we are record-wise, obviously. But we’re not.”

No. They’re not. And you can pursue multiple pathways for why they’ve been crash-landing in fourth quarters the last two weeks, but it’s almost too limiting. Let one sequence Wednesday night stand as a representative for where the Knicks are right now:

Julius Randle and Immanuel Quickley hang their heads in the closing minutes of the Knicks' 111-106 loss to the Nets.
Julius Randle and Immanuel Quickley hang their heads in the closing minutes of the Knicks’ 111-106 loss to the Nets.
Jason Szenes

Late in the game, after the Nets had zipped past them and held a 3-point lead, Brooklyn’s LaMarcus Aldridge took an 18-footer that missed. The Garden crowd, pleading out of habit more than hope, took a momentary delight until it was apparent the ball wasn’t going to land in the hands of any of the three Knicks nearby, but in those of the Nets’ Bruce Brown. He fed Patty Mills, who missed a long 3-pointer — and then Mills got his own rebound.

One Nets timeout later, rookie Cam Thomas — whom the Knicks made look like a young Jerry West for about six remarkable minutes — buried a 3-pointer from 29 feet away.

Game. Set. Match. Disgrace.

Now? The Knicks have nine days to sleep on this, nine days to figure a way to avoid tumbling down a basketball black hole that feels almost pre-dug.

“We have a chance to reboot here,” Thibodeau said, neither looking nor sounding like a man who may have to sweat out these nine coming days. “Everything is on the table now. Everything has to be merit based. You earn what you get.

“You look at everything. How are we going to manage this. If a guy is playing good, he plays. If the team is functioning well he should play. The team has to come first for everyone.”

That certainly sounds good in a vacuum. So does this, from Thibodeau: “All I think about is winning.”

That’s the way it should be, not the nervous exchange of text threads all over Greater New York, when the Knicks are up 28, but they still feel like 12-point underdogs. Bad times at the Garden always feel like the worst times in all of sports around here. And here we are again.

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