Only a few days ago, Julius Randle giggled to himself in front of a gaggle of reporters. He shook his head.
“Oh my goodness,” he said. “It’s about time we won one of those types of games.”
The New York Knicks had just survived a late almost-comeback win from the Toronto Raptors, who trailed by 16 with a little more than three minutes to go in regulation but pulled within two before New York closed out a 112-108 win. Finally, the Knicks had stared the basketball gods in their leather faces and fended off potential catastrophe.
The finish was dramatic, but a win is a win. And this particular win meant the Knicks were humming, victors of four straight. After all, a blown lead is not a blown lead if a team never blows the lead, no matter how close the opponent gets.
“We made free throws down the end and executed down the stretch,” Randle said, before delivering the punch line. “And they didn’t hit every single ridiculous shot.”
“Ridiculous” is one way to put it. It sure feels like whenever the Knicks build a large lead, whoever they’re playing somehow morphs into the 1996 Chicago Bulls. Various actors have played the part of MJ.
Luka Doncic? Ridiculous.
DeMar DeRozan? Ridiculous.
Jerami Grant? Also ridiculous.
And now, add one more bit of ridiculousness to the fold: Monday night, in the game following the win in Toronto, the Knicks went up 17 at home against the Milwaukee Bucks but couldn’t seal the deal. The Bucks caught fire from 3-point land and roared back in the second half to snap New York’s winning streak with a 111-107 triumph.
It’s the seventh time this season the Knicks have gone up double-digits in a game but lost. Some of the defeats have been especially heartbreaking — like letting go of a nine-point advantage with a half-minute to go in Dallas or when that 23-point edge over the Atlanta Hawks evaporated.
The Knicks can’t hold onto a lead. But there’s a greater context to this: neither can the rest of the NBA.
Thanks to The Athletic‘s NBA analytics guru, Seth Partnow, who compiled league-wide statistics on blown leads for this story, we now know the Knicks are one of seven teams that have let go of at least seven double-digit advantages in losses this season. Fourteen teams have blown at least six double-digit leads in losses; 21 have blown at least five. Every team has turned at least three double-digit leads into losses — except for the Memphis Grizzlies, who are somehow yet to blow one.
The Portland Trail Blazers have a 14-point comeback against the Knicks, but they’ve also blown double-digit advantages in nine losses this season, the most in the NBA. The Hawks silenced Madison Square Garden when they exited after that 23-point comeback, but they’ve suffered the other side of this, too, giving back double-digit leads in eight of their defeats this season. Dončić shattered hearts with his intentionally missed free throw that he turned into a game-tying floater, but … you can probably guess where this is going; the Mavericks have let go of double-digit leads in eight of their losses.
The reality is that (unless you’re in Memphis) this happens all the time now.
The one of the 3-pointer has changed the game. Pump out three straight stand-still looks from the corner, and you’re back in it. If one or two role players get the hot hand, as some Bucks did Monday night, the dynamic flips. Hardships like what the Knicks suffered against Milwaukee occur just about every night in the NBA these days. A losing team has blown a double-digit lead in 26 percent of the games played around the league this season.
And now, as Randle was, head coach Tom Thibodeau is laughing, too.
“I sort get a chuckle because you guys — no lead is safe in this league. … A 20-point lead with three minutes (remaining), you’re not safe,” Thibodeau said over the weekend. “With the 3, with the way the game is officiated, the thing is you can make up ground quickly.”
On Monday, it was a team effort from Milwaukee.
Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez and Grayson Allen each hit a couple of 3s in the fourth quarter. Holiday looked unstoppable draining stepbacks down the stretch. Joe Ingles sank two in the third. The Knicks frustrated the Bucks for most of the game, collapsing hard from the perimeter into the paint. When you’re going up against a two-time MVP like Giannis Antetokounmpo, you have to give up something and hope it doesn’t come back to bite you. The Knicks chose the 3-ball. It didn’t hurt them until it did.
The Knicks have late-game kinks to work out. They’re far from the Grizzlies, who hold onto leads with clenched fists.
They’ve missed crucial free throws. The offense has gone stagnant. Sometimes, they’ve flat-out collapsed, like in the final 30 seconds in Dallas or when Atlanta turned a 23-point deficit into a double-digit advantage over only one quarter.
Their lack of 3-point shooting means they can’t match a team like Milwaukee when it gets hot. It was difficult to ignore the disparity from behind the arc Monday. Both squads allowed the other to let 3s fly, but the Bucks made 19 of their 49 attempts and the Knicks made only 11 of 41.
New York can score, but the offense is methodical. It’s not constructed to go tit for tat from deep.
But this trend also is not as extreme as it seems. All these blown leads may feel extraordinary in the moment, but the Knicks are not alone.
Seth Partnow contributed to this story.
(Photo of Julius Randle: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)