It’s a cautionary tale as old as the Deal Zone itself: One struggling team throws caution to the wind, embraces the way of the deal, and emerges with a remade, virtually unrecognizable roster and rotation; another team, facing a similar crisis of underperformance, huddles meekly inside the cave of cowardice, lets the deadline for big brave deals pass, and trudges back into the light in the same sorry shape as before. The universe, sensing the approach of an important symbolic clash between the bold and the butt, uses the former team to smite the latter, most cruelly.
The sagging, 12th-seeded Knicks faced the sagging, 11th-seeded Blazers in Portland Saturday night. It’s not super clear that these two teams share a sense of urgency about reversing this season’s unhappy returns. Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau is the least Take The Long View head coach in the entire sport, and the Knicks, coming off a top-four finish last season and their first playoff appearance since 2013, are constructed to hunt playoff glory, however unrealistic that goal may be. The Blazers were crappy and underperforming even before they lost Damian Lillard for the season; with a first-time head coach heaping opportunities on ambitious youths, the Blazers might value maximized draft lottery odds over an appearance in this year’s Western Conference play-in tournament. Both teams would prefer to be on the upswing, but Lillard’s abdominal surgery in mid-January clarified the short term for Portland in a way that season-long suckitude evidently has not for the Knicks. Portland spent the pre-deadline period wheeling and dealing, adding seven new players to their roster and grabbing up five future draft picks; the Knicks, interested only in deals that move them immediately and definitively into a higher tier in a competitive Eastern Conference, sat on their big fat butts and did nothing.
So the Knicks team that took the court in Portland Saturday night was a drearily familiar one, plus or minus a banged-up R.J. Barrett. The home team started Justise Winslow and Josh Hart, two men who’ve played a combined five games with the Blazers, and constructed their bench out of Trendon Watford, Greg Brown III, and Elijah Hughes, three players who I quite frankly have never heard of before. The early stages of this game went about the way you’d expect. The Knicks brushed off a slow start to lead after the first quarter, and were up five at halftime. The lead ballooned in the third quarter, eventually reaching 82–59 with about five minutes left in the frame. The team with a freshly tilled roster was struggling to run a functional offense, and the underperforming-but-intact squad still hunting a playoff berth was at the happy end of a cathartic blowout.
Here is where the cosmos finally intervened, expressing an unmistakable preference for the daring over the timid. The Blazers ripped off a quick 9–1 run, Thibodeau called a timeout and shuffled his lineup, and the teams traded buckets for the rest of the quarter, but the Blazers were suddenly finding space in New York’s defense: Portland’s last five buckets of the frame were either point-blank finishes or threes, and the sudden surge cut the 23-point deficit down to a much more manageable 15 to start the fourth.
This is when all hell broke loose. Portland’s offense continued to click, and New York’s went fully into the toilet. Apart from one tough fadeaway jumper from Julius Randle, the Knicks went an appalling 8 minutes and 15 seconds where their only points came on two trips to the free-throw line. The Blazers “opened” the quarter on a 29–9 run; starting with that little surge in the third quarter, Portland outscored the Knicks 53–21 over the final 16 minutes and 55 seconds of the game. The fourth quarter was a disgusting 35–11 bloodbath:
By the time it was over, the Blazers had a comfortable nine-point win and an unexpected (and possibly undesired) return to the West’s 10th seed, in line for a play-in berth, while the Knicks dropped their 11th loss in 14 games. The situation is getting bleak in New York: Two games back of the bottom rung of play-in semi-relevance, the only team free-falling in their direction is the Brooklyn Nets, who just swung a Mega Deal to repair their chemistry and deepen their rotation for the stretch run. The more optimistic of FiveThirtyEight’s prognostication calculators gives the Knicks just a nine percent chance of scoring a playoff spot. These are grim times indeed.
There’s a sliver of hope on the horizon. Those Nets have lost 11 in a row and need a reversal of momentum every bit as desperately as their crosstown rivals. The Knicks and Nets will face each other at Madison Square Garden on February 16, in the direst of conditions. The Knicks will have this same tired roster, with an exhausted Randle and a brain-boomed Evan Fournier and an extremely unwanted Kemba Walker. The Nets, in a delightful twist, will be without the services of their one healthy superstar: Because the game will take place in New York City, the same vaccine mandate that prevents Kyrie Irving from playing home games will prevent him from suiting up for this much-needed road game. Hilariously, this is Brooklyn’s only road date over their next four contests; if Patty Mills can’t lead them to glory, they may be staring down a 15-game losing streak before an absolutely brutal stretch of schedule heading into early March. If fortune disfavors the complacent, it loathes most of all the self-sabotaging.