Before and after Tuesday’s game in Utah, guard Austin Rivers pointed out the Knicks are “fatigued.’’ And he indicated it wasn’t just physically, but mentally, too.
Rivers, the most candid Knick, initially blamed it on a grueling road schedule. The Knicks were on the road during a pandemic for 13 of their first 19 games — a stretch ending with Tuesday’s 108-94 collapse against the Jazz.
After the Knicks got walloped in the fourth quarter by an embarrassing 28-13 count, Rivers said he didn’t know what the reason is, but blowing a 15-point lead and showing no fight in the final quarter was proof.
“I mean, guys were dead,’’ Rivers said. “So I don’t know what the reason was for that. But just looking around with like six minutes left in the fourth, it didn’t look like we were ourselves as a unit. Just our energy changed the second half. They became more physical. They took the fight to us. It just felt like it kind of fell apart there.”
It was a damning accusation for a team built on grit — not offensive talent. Rivers, who scored 25 points in the first half and none in the second half, did not blame minutes distribution as a cause. Nor did he specify the demanding road safety protocols.
But Tom Thibodeau’s minutes may turn into an issue if the 8-11 Knicks, who have lost three straight, don’t reverse course when they return to the Garden Friday versus Cleveland after the eight-day, four-game western swing.
Thibodeau is revered around the league for his coaching acumen, but his win-at-all-costs approach has earned detractors. A short rotation and an inability to give up in blowouts and use his depth is evident across the first 19 games.
Julius Randle (36.7) and RJ Barrett (36.4), his two main cogs, are now ranked second and fourth, respectively, in minutes per game in the NBA. During the fourth-quarter blowout on Tuesday, Thibodeau kept Barrett on the court until there was 1:19 left, down 17. Barrett wound up logging 40:22.
It could have been a moment to give 2017 lottery pick, Frank Ntilikina, some action. Ntilikina, now healthy, did not play for the second straight game after being out 3½ weeks with a sprained knee.
Thibodeau does not throw in the towel easily. Against the Nets on Jan. 13, Brooklyn was winning in a rout. It seemed an obvious chance to rest Randle and give rookie Obi Toppin, in his first game back from a calf injury, the chance to work his way into shape.
Thibodeau kept Randle in the game and the Knicks made a feverish comeback. But the Knicks would have needed a miracle to pull out the victory. They wound up losing, 116-109, and won some kudos on national TV for the comeback attempt. Indeed, there was short-term success, but it raised questions on whether it was best for the long term.
Before Tuesday’s game, Rivers said of the first 19 contests, “I don’t know how a schedule could be tougher than what we’ve played. Physically and mentally.’’
The 63-year-old Thibodeau, an old-school New Englander whom Bill Belichick adores, doesn’t want to hear anything about a tough schedule or fatigue. And now things should get easier with 11 of the next 16 at the Garden.
“The schedule is the schedule,’’ Thibodeau said regarding Rivers’ remarks. “It’s balanced. Sometimes it’s in your favor. The thing that makes this a little more unusual with the COVID stuff, you could be walking into teams that are off an extended period [like in Portland]. But that’s all part of it. You could probably find an excuse for every game. That’s what you have to guard against. You have to have the mental toughness to get through anything you’re facing.’’