DENVER – It was a blowout, an embarrassing blowout in an embarrassing season. The game was over, creeping toward the 132-115 final in favor of the Nuggets. Yet Tom Thibodeau still had his starters on the court, most notably RJ Barrett, who, with about 25 meaningless seconds remaining, twisted his ankle.
The 21-year-old sat on the court, clearly hurting, and limped out of the arena as time expired. It added injury to insult.
The Knicks were embarrassed by the Nuggets, and Thibodeau’s penchant for playing full throttle through blowouts might’ve cost his team beyond its latest dud.
“He sat most of the fourth,” Thibodeau said when asked why he had Barrett in the game. “We got it down to 13 and wanted to see if we could make a run.”
Asked about his level of concern for Barrett’s health, Thibodeau said, “I talked to him for a second. Seemed like he was OK, but I don’t know. I don’t wanna say anything until they look at him.”
Barrett was injured with about 25 seconds left and the Knicks trailing by 15. Thibodeau had just subbed out two other starters – Julius Randle and Evan Fournier – but left in Barrett.
It capped a night to forget for the Knicks in the Mile High City, where the Knicks gave up 83 points in the first half – one short of the franchise record for defensive futility – and played with a double-digit deficit for the final 32 minutes.
The meek performance reiterated why the Knicks had trouble trading their contracts. The Knicks (24-31) have lost four in a row and 10 of their last 12. They’re 12th in a stacked Eastern Conference.
“Hard to win like that,” Thibodeau said.
It was, in many ways, a predictable result. The Nuggets (30-24) have the league’s reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic, and a surging roster that smacked around the Nets two days earlier. Jokic finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, joining four other teammates who scored at least 19 points.
The Nuggets led by 27 in the first half and never looked back. The Knicks bench, once the guiding light of some early success this season, was a dump, particularly Immanuel Quickley, who missed all four of his 3-point attempts, and Cam Reddish, who is finally getting a chance with Quentin Grimes injured and is doing nothing with it.
Walker scored just two points on 1-of-6 shooting, not exactly increasing his trade value. Julius Randle played well with 28 points, and Evan Fournier hit shots. But the defense, Thibodeau’s calling card, wilted.
To be fair, the Knicks were operating Tuesday at a deficit. Not only were they playing on the second night of a back-to-back, they faced the league’s MVP without their top centers.
Mitchell Robinson (sore back) and Nerlens Noel (sore knee) were out after both played in Monday’s loss to the Jazz. It left the Knicks with only Taj Gibson and Jericho Sims, two centers who combined for seven minutes in the previous give games. Predictably, they struggled to stop Jokic. But they also struggled to stop many Nuggets, who shot 56% overall.
“We look to establish Nikola early anyways, but it’ll be even more of a heightened awareness for us knowing they’re a little bit thin in their frontcourt,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone acknowledged.
Thibodeau gushed over Jokic, who the Knicks passed over in the second round of the 2014 draft by picking Cleanthony Early at 34th overall (Jokic went 41st). That was a Phil Jackson mistake. But the 2022 summer disaster is all on Leon Rose, who didn’t travel with the team to Denver so he could navigate the trade deadline.
“Even if you have everyone he’s an MVP-type player, so he poses so many problems,” Thibodeau said. “There’s probably no other player that stretches the floor in the way that he does in terms of that he really plays the point as a center. He has great vision, can throw the ball full court, diagonal pass, stretch you out. If anyone’s jogging he’s going to make you pay for that. If you have a body position mistake on a cut he’ll make you pay for that. He’s a terrific player, all-around player.”
Jokic went from a 27-point triple-double against the Nets to hitting cruise control against the Knicks. A demolition of NYC in the Rocky Mountains. The Knicks, meanwhile, just piled a loss on another loss, with an unnecessary injury on top.