Knicks rally, but flop at the finish line against lowly Cavs

CLEVELAND — David Fizdale has identified one pure trait of his 2018-19 Knicks. They’re never out of a game.

There’s also another undeniable trait Knicks president Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry and the team’s first-year coach all but promised: This team will deliver lots of losses — to the very good and the very bad.

All the forces came together in a Wednesday thriller at Quicken Loans Arena. Rookie lottery pick Kevin Knox got the start and made a dazzling finish. It looked like he would become the heroic closer, spearheading one last final rally on a night stuffed with them.

Emmanuel Mudiay picked up a loose ball, ignited a fast break and fed Knox, who jammed it home emphatically with the right hand, giving the Knicks a one-point lead with 32.5 seconds left. Moments before, Knox had drilled a 3-pointer.

But the Knicks couldn’t hold onto that slim advantage in another late collapse that saw the game end on an 8-0 Cavaliers run en route to a 113-106 Cleveland victory.

Rodney Hood scored the game-winning basket in the lane with 23 seconds left. Mudiay followed by blowing a floater then had to throw away an inbounds pass, with the five-second count running out and no timeout at his disposal, as the Knicks’ rally from 22 points down was for naught.

The 8-21 Knicks have lost five straight and continue the three-game road trip in Charlotte on Friday and Indiana on Sunday.

Fizdale said recently that player development and defensive culture is far more important than won-loss record. But this was a rare night when it was difficult to see clearly where Fizdale’s defensive culture is going.

Cleveland struck for 39 first-quarter points, looking like LeBron James was still on the squad, as the Knicks gave the Cavaliers all types of open looks.

“The game was lost in the first quarter,’’ Fizdale said. “We can’t keep spotting teams 40-point quarters and think we’re going to dig out of that. But I was proud of the way we crawled back. But we didn’t guard the ball [early]. We had seven blow-bys in the first quarter.”

It was a horribly rough first half against a league dreg at a no-longer-full downtown arena — among the most troubling of the Knicks’ 21 losses. The Cavaliers entered the night at 6-21 and were without their top performer in center Tristan Thompson after already being beset by Kevin Love’s toe surgery.

“We came out sluggish,’’ said Knox, who finished with an impressive 19 points. “We gave up too many easy points. We weren’t guarding the ball at all. We fixed it in the third quarter but it was too late. The first quarter messed us the whole game.”

Fizdale made another starting lineup change, the obvious swap of Knox for Mario Hezonja. Knox shot well from deep and finished 7-of-15 from the floor, 3-of-6 on 3s). He even recorded a block on a fast break by Hood.

“Every game I’m starting to see him get a little bit better, little more aggressive, a little more certain,’’ Fizdale said.

The Knox move may have hurt the defensive chemistry though, as the Knicks allowed the Cavaliers to shoot 53.6 percent in the first half. Cleveland didn’t commit a single turnover in the opening quarter.

Jordan Clarkson’s four-point play gave the Cavs a 53-31 lead. That 22-point bulge was wiped out, astoundingly, in a 10:03 span when Noah Vonleh scored inside, tying the score at 67 with 8:11 left in the third.

“We can’t give up 40 points in the first quarter and play catch-up the majority of the game,’’ said Mudiay, who finished with 16 points and seven assists.

The Knicks fell back behind by seven but roared again, forging an 86-86 tie after three quarters via back-to-back 3s by Tim Hardaway Jr. and Frank Ntilikina (16 points).

Still, it was there to win. Down one with 23 seconds left, the Knicks’ strategy was to shoot quickly instead of burning the clock to the final ticks and foul after a miss. Mudiay had a good look at a floater but was off target.

“Mud got right where he wanted it, was a make-or-miss play,’’ Fizdale said. “If we miss, we’re able to foul. We’re not that type of team to run the shot-clock down when we’re down.’’

Cedri Osman got the rebound of Mudiay’s miss with 15 seconds left, hit both free throws, and Mudiay couldn’t find an open man on the ensuing inbounds — tossing it in before a violation and the ball was stolen by Larry Nance Jr.

“I had to get rid of it,’’ Mudiay said.

As good as Knox was, Cavs point guard Collin Sexton, picked one slot ahead of him last spring at No. 8, kept pace, scoring 16 of his 19 points in the first half. Knox did his damage late but it didn’t result in the win.

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