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Knicks experience growing pains amid unfavorable schedule

JAIME C. HARRIS | 1/5/2018, 1:12 p.m.
Before losing two straight games at home, Madison Square Garden was a stronghold for the Knicks and a countermeasure to ...

Before losing two straight games at home, Madison Square Garden was a stronghold for the Knicks and a countermeasure to their troubles on the road. They were 15-5 at MSG before dropping consecutive games to the Philadelphia 76ers on Christmas Day and to the San Antonio Spurs Tuesday night. It was the first time this season the Knicks have lost two in a row in their building.

The Spurs entered the Knicks’ domain 26-11, the third best record in the Western Conference. “We’re younger than them, but they just played harder than us,” Knicks center Enes Kanter noted. “They played with more energy and we just didn’t have it tonight.”

In contrast to their winning record at the Garden, the Knicks have experienced debilitating futility playing away from the Garden. They were 3-12 heading into last night’s (Wednesday) game against the Washington Wizards in the nation’s capital, tied with the Atlanta Hawks and Utah Jazz for the fewest road wins in the NBA. Overall, head coach Jeff Hornacek’s squad was 18-19, holding ninth position in the 15-team Eastern Conference.

They will play their next two games outside of New York City, facing the Heat in Miami tomorrow and the Mavericks in Dallas Sunday. The expected growing pains the Knicks are enduring, learning how to grind out wins in the throes of an arduous schedule, have particularly manifested during crucial stretches of games. Their issues late in fourth quarters have been evident. Four of the Knicks’ eight losses in December were by five points or less.

Yet their inability to hold leads when up in the third quarter or early in the fourth, unable to fend off opponents’ runs because of lapses in intensity and discipline, has been as contributory to their poor road mark and recent blemishes at home as their inconsistent late game execution. Although Kristaps Porzingis has become the centerpiece of the Knicks’ offense this season, he is also the top defensive priority of the opposition, frequently being double-teamed in the post or off pick and rolls, schemes he is still learning to combat.

Porzingis, the Knicks’ leading scorer at 24.1 points per game as of last night, ranking 13th in the league, has made significant strides in this, his third NBA season, but too often he allows much smaller players to effectively guard him in the post, pushing him away from the basket and forcing him into difficult shots as he fades away from the rim, a topic Hornacek addressed Tuesday following the Knicks’ 100-91 loss to the Spurs.

“He wants to do well and be one of the best players in the league,’’ Hornacek said of Porzingis. “He is 22 years old and everyone knows he is our main guy. They are doing things and putting their best guys on him. He’s going to have ups and down, but this is a growing process.”

“Sometimes I force shots over people, but I feel I could make those,’’ Porzingis said. “Even today, how many shots were in and out?’’ His rhetorical question applies to several close games this season, games in which he and his maturing teammates have ended up on the wrong side of the win-loss column.