CLEVELAND — The Knicks left home Thursday riding a three-game winning streak and they returned Sunday night licking their wounds after two doses of reality.
Facing two of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks and the Cavaliers, revealed just how far they have to go in the early part of the season.
A one-sided, 11-point loss on Friday night in Milwaukee was followed by a fourth-quarter collapse on Sunday in Cleveland, resulting in a winless trip in which Giannis Antetokounmpo and Donovan Mitchell had their way with the Knicks.
“We have a lot of room for improvement,” Jalen Brunson bluntly said after the Cavaliers’ 121-108 victory at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. “I think we wouldn’t have it any other way. We have a lot of guys who work really hard and don’t quit. If this was easy, anybody would do it. We have to continue to get better. We have a lot of guys who work hard and don’t quit.”
The Bucks, it should be noted, are undefeated and the Cavaliers have won five straight games. Both are playing very well. The Knicks had a much better shot of beating the Cavaliers, taking a nine-point lead into the fourth quarter. In those final 12 minutes, though, they were outscored 37-15. The one common denominator was the opposition’s star torched them. Antetokounmpo had 30 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists while Mitchell poured in 38 points and 13 assists.
“I feel like both games we at least gave ourselves a chance to win,” Julius Randle said. “As the season goes on [and] our defense gets better, we tighten that up, we’ll learn how to win these games.”
These two losses were the start of a brutal seven-game stretch against projected playoff teams that continues Wednesday at home against Garden villain Trae Young and the Hawks. That is followed by a trip on Friday 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 took the glass-half-full approach after these 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 have to do,” Thibodeau said. “It shows us what we’re capable of. We just have to do it with more consistency and for longer. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”