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The “Big 15’’ wasn’t good enough to beat the “Big 1.’’
Not when “the one” is Kyrie Irving putting up a 40-spot Monday at Barclays Center.
Irving was without his two amigos, James Harden and Kevin Durant, but managed to lead a Nets’ comeback from 14 points to beat the Knicks again, 114-112.
This was sobering. This was humbling. The Knicks still can’t rise up against a top team in the clutch despite all that Tom Thibodeau-inspired grit and heart. Maybe because they don’t have an Irving.
They have Julius Randle, whose triple-double was safely in the bank (19 points 15 rebounds 12 assists) when he rose up from the right of the key in the final seconds.
Randle looked absolutely exhausted down the stretch — and in pain — as he soldiers on despite a thigh bruise. Afterward, Randle said, thank you, but he is “all right’’.
Down two, Randle’s jumper clanged the back iron at the buzzer. It allowed the Nets to sweep the season series 3-0 without the Knicks once facing Brooklyn’s three future Hall-of-Famers en masse.
The Knicks have now lost four of five, dropping to eighth place — a play-in tournament looking likelier than the playoffs. The Knicks’ inability to beat the loftier clubs is becoming a source of major concern.
“We just want to be on the other side, on the winning side,’’ RJ Barrett said. “We see how close we are.’’
The Knicks should have won this game with Durant opting not to play his 23rd straight game. KD sat courtside in a black Jackie Robinson sweatshirt.
They should’ve won because Harden joined Durant on the sidelines soon after the start, pulling up lame midway through the first quarter, his hamstring injury acting up.
The Knicks rang up 67 points in the first half with Reggie Bullock and Randle a terrific 1-2 punch. Bullock had drilled two straight 3-pointers late in the half after Randle had barreled in for a fast-break layup. It busted open the game, 67-53, late in the half.
And then — as is a recent disturbing trend — it was gone. Irving takes a lot of personal days but when he’s on, it’s magical.
Irving is a pool shark who owns every angled bank shot in basketball and rose to 40 despite all the Knicks double-teams.
And then, with 59 seconds left, he pushed Brooklyn’s lead to five with a majestic, step-back 3-pointer after faking Elfrid Payton out of his shorts. The one time the Knicks didn’t send a second man in time.
Irving’s smile grew wider than the East River after the ball rattled in. “Seen it all,’’ Irving said of the Knicks’ traps.
The other day, when the prospect of KD, Harden and Irving playing together for the first time loomed as a possibility, Bullock and Randle were asked about facing the Big Three.
“We have a Big Five’’ Bullock said.
“Big 15,’’ Randle interjected.
It was a big message, but one the Nets proved incorrect. Brooklyn has depth, too. Just ask unsung big man Jeff Green, who finished with 23 points and grabbed the key offensive rebound with 3.7 seconds left, getting fouled and sinking the game-winning free throws.
Thibodeau was asked whether Irving was just too good and the Knicks coach almost rattled off all the names on the Nets roster.
“Well it’s more than just Irving,’’ Thibodeau said. “Though Irving is a great talent.’’
A few minutes into the contest Harden made a routine move into the lane, kicked it out to Irving, pulled up and motioned to Steve Nash he was hurt.
“Very frustrating for James,’’ Nash said. “It may linger. He’s feeling something.’’
Irving was left to fend for himself but he’s got other black-clad troops who battle just as hard in the shadows of the Big Three.
Despite all the injuries to their three Hall of Famers, the Nets find themselves atop the Eastern Conference at 35-16.
This was the start of a treacherous final 22 games for the Knicks, who since February have beat the riffraff but not the better teams.
The Knicks took out Milwaukee last month but the Bucks were without their top four players.
Otherwise, the “moral victories’’ are piling up — two down-to-the-wire losses to the Sixers, now two close defeats to the Nets, three competitive losses to Miami.
Dallas and San Antonio? Well, the Knicks really didn’t compete there.
After seven straight seasons of misery, and the better part of 20 years, Knicks fans perhaps are excited just to have meaningful games in spring.
Whether the Knicks win any of them will be a different story.
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