Knicks can’t afford to let games like loss to Cavs get away

Evan Mobley’s 15-footer was off the moment it left his hands. You could see that on television, you could see it from the cheap seats inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. You could certainly see it on the floor.

There were 90 seconds left in the game, Knicks and Cavaliers tied at 91. A few eyeblinks earlier, the Cavs had led this by 15 points and were a play away from entering cruise control. The Knicks objected to that. They went on a 20-5 tear. Julius Randle tied the game with a strong layup.

Now, the ball was in the air. In good times, in prosperous times, the ball finds hands belonging to the team in the blue jersey. In good times, in prosperous times, that maybe leads to a fast break, maybe leads to a go-ahead score that can carry you the rest of the way. In good times, in prosperous times, the Knicks steal this game they had no business winning.

“You’ve got to find a way,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau would say.

But Mobley saw immediately where to go. He snared the rebound. He found Darius Garland, who hadn’t made a 3 all night, and RJ Barrett leapt out at him, forcing him to slide a few feet to the corner. Garland launched his 3 from the corner.

In good times, in prosperous times, maybe that clanks away.

RJ Barrett and the Knicks lost to the Cavaliers on Monday.

This time, this night, it splashed through clean. It was 94-91, Cavaliers. It ended 95-93, Cavaliers. The first game of this brutal three-game road swing through Cleveland, Miami and Milwaukee had gotten away, as did the Knicks’ latest chance to crawl back to .500. It is a task that only gets harder now.

You’ve got to find a way. Some day. Some night. Not this night.

“I think we should’ve won the game for sure,” said RJ Barrett, who turned in another fine night — 24 points, five rebounds, four assists — though his late 3-pointer for the lead rattled out with two seconds left. “That was a key play at the end. We don’t get the rebound and Darius gets the 3.”

He shook his head.

“Little things count,” he said, and for the Knicks the whole night by Lake Erie was a study in little things adding up, a testament to death by a thousand cuts. They actually played terrific defense most of the night — they forced 19 Cavaliers turnovers — but allowed 12 offensive rebounds and were beaten on the boards 51-45.

There were stretches in the game when the offense was clicking beautifully, but they kept missing open shot after open shot — Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Evan Fournier and Randle combined to shoot 10-for-40. And the bricklaying, killingly, bled to the foul line: they were only 11-for-21 from the stripe.

“Frustrating,” said Barrett, only 5-for-10 from the line. “That’s the game right there. That’s 10 points. We lose by two.”

Evan Mobley

The Knicks are entering a stretch of their schedule where stealing steal-able games is no longer a luxury but a requirement. Without a few games like that the season could spin out of control in a hurry. Can they steal one against the Heat? Can they steal one against the Bucks? Can they generate any kind of positive momentum before heading west a week from Saturday?

“There’s a fine line between winning and losing,” Thibodeau said. “In the fourth quarter, you’ve got to come up with those loose balls and you can’t recklessly give up 3s. You have to remain disciplined.”

The Knicks mostly negotiated that line brilliantly a year ago. It’s been a different story this year. The Cavaliers are one of the surprise teams in the NBA, and they’ve dined on winning games just like this, a collection of young talent (with the occasional hand from a vet like Kevin Love or Rajon Rondo) learning how to win on the fly, and it’s beautiful to watch.

They find a way more often than not. They found a way Monday night. The Knicks could’ve used this one. They really needed to steal this one. In good times, in prosperous times, they do. In these times? They walk off a court shaking their heads. Let one get away. Again.

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