CLEVELAND — The Knicks left home Thursday on a three-game winning streak and returned Sunday night licking their wounds after two doses of reality.
Facing two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks and the Cavaliers, revealed how far they had to go at the start of the season.
A one-sided 11-point loss Friday night at Milwaukee was followed by a fourth-quarter meltdown Sunday at Cleveland, leading to a winless trip in which Giannis Antetokounmpo and Donovan Mitchell struggled with the Knicks.
“We have a lot of room for improvement,” Jalen Brunson said bluntly after the Cavaliers’ 121-108 victory at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. “I don’t think it would be otherwise. We have a lot of guys who work really hard and don’t give up. If it was easy, anyone would do it. We have to keep improving. We have a lot of guys who work hard and don’t give up.
The Bucks, it should be noted, are undefeated and the Cavaliers have won five straight games. Both play very well. The Knicks had a much better chance of beating the Cavaliers, taking a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter. In those final 12 minutes, however, they were outscored 37-15. The only common denominator was that the opposition star set them on fire. Antetokounmpo had 30 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists while Mitchell had 38 points and 13 assists.
“I feel like both games we at least gave ourselves a chance to win,” said Julius Randle. “As the season progresses [and] our defense is getting better, we’re tightening that up, we’ll learn how to win these games.
Those two losses were the start of a brutal seven-game streak against projected playoff teams that continues Wednesday at home against Garden villain Trae Young and the Hawks. That’s followed by a Friday trip to Philadelphia to face the 76ers before the Celtics come to MSG on Saturday. Bottom line: It won’t get any easier.
But coach Tom Thibodeau opted for the glass half full after those two games. He liked how the Knicks played in the first half against the Bucks and felt the first three quarters were solid against the Cavaliers.
“It reveals exactly where we are and what we need to do,” Thibodeau said. “It shows us what we are capable of. We just need to do it more consistently and for longer. If we do this, everything will be fine.