Published On: Sun, Feb 25th, 2018

Knicks keep it close but collapse late in 121-112 loss to Celtics

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Kyrie Irving is still a long way from his free agency. And until the Knicks make their expected pitch in the summer of 2019, they’ll have to deal with being pummeled by a true superstar playing for a division foe.

Irving put on a show for the Celtics in their 121-112 victory Saturday over the Knicks, coming close to a triple-double while scoring 31 points with six 3-pointers.

Irving got it going in the third quarter – when he dropped 15 of his points – while sending Frank Ntilikina to the court with a nasty crossover. Irving also finished with nine rebounds and eight assists, outplaying New York’s surging point guard, Trey Burke, who had 26 points but went cold in the fourth quarter. Irving’s behind-the-back assist to Jaylen Brown with about two minutes remaining sealed the Celtics’ win.

For the Knicks (24-37), it was an ideal defeat. They played hard and the youngsters held large roles, including Burke, Frank Ntilikina (eight points, 24 minutes) and Emmanuel Mudiay (13 points, 25 minutes).

The Knicks celebrated Chinese New Year at the Garden on Sunday, about a week after the calendar changed from the year of the chicken to the year of the dog. It was fitting because these are the Dog Days for the Knicks, a slow and tedious march to the finish without a realistic chance at the playoffs. Next season doesn’t to project to be terribly exciting either since the Knicks won’t have much, if any, cap space to upgrade the roster in free agency.

It’s all about the summer of 2019 when they’ll likely make a push for max players. Aside from Irving, potential top free agents for that summer include Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker.

The Knicks, if creative, could open enough money for two of them to play alongside Kristaps Porzingis. Irving has given the impression that he’d be interested in signing with his hometown team. In addition to placing the Knicks on his short list of preferred destinations after requesting a trade from Cleveland, he went out of his way to relay the message he gave Porzingis in October.

Kyrie Irving put on a show for the Celtics.

(Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

““I told him, “I would love to play with a big like you, man, when we played them in the beginning of the season when he came to Boston,’’ Irving said during All-Star weekend. “He’s so versatile. So I wish him nothing but the best and hope he comes back even stronger.”

On Saturday, Burke picked up where he left off in Thursday’s victory over Orlando, where he dropped a season-high 26 points. Against Boston, he came off the bench and scored New York’s final nine points of the first quarter in less than three minutes. Burke finished the first half with 15 points. .

Jeff Hornacek again started Mudiay at point guard but he continued to struggle while missing 8 of his 12 shot attempts. Ntilikina mostly played as the off-guard, furthering the notion that his slow dribble and first-step makes him better suited to play off the ball.

Scouts have been saying that about Ntilikina for months. Predictably, Hornacek said the competition between Ntilikina, Mudiay and Burke is beneficial for everybody.

“I think it’s good for all three of them,” the coach said. “Again, I said it the other night, we want these guys to approach this as, ‘I got to do better than the next guy.’ Really, your goal as a basketball player is to try to get the most of yourself and your potential. And if two other guys are out there playing with you and they’re all pushing each other to reach their potential, that’s going to make it better for all three of them. And I think right now, they have that attitude. They’re for each other, they’re talking with each other in the locker room and in practice and the game, helping each other out. So they’ve got a nice little chemistry, those three guys.”  

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