MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Last month the Knicks couldn’t compete with the young and speedy Grizzlies at the Garden.
But they have become a new team in March, and the Knicks looked on the verge of upsetting the Grizzlies in building a 15-point lead late in the third quarter.
But the Grizzlies proved too good and Ja Morant too great. In the land of Elvis Presley, the Knicks suffered a “Heartbreak Hotel” kind of loss and their three-game winning streak was brutally snapped.
Instead of finishing their six-game trip away from New York in spectacular fashion with Julius Randle again the engine, the Knicks collapsed and Morant sped the Grizzlies to a comeback 118-114 win at Fed Ex Forum on Friday night.
“Bittersweet,” Randle said of finishing the trip 3-3. “Kind of the story of the season. There’s been a couple of games we kind of lost it at the end.”
Morant finished with 37 points and eight assists. In the game’s key play, RJ Barrett was blocked by Jaren Jackson Jr. and Morant sped downcourt for a layup and 109-106 lead with 2:00 left. Barrett finished with 23 points but shot a dismal 9 of 25 — including 1-for-6 from 3-point range.
Randle scored 36 points but just six in the fourth quarter, four of them coming after Memphis had a comfortable lead. He was 3 of 6 from beyond the arc, but mostly he was ferociously scoring inside and on the fast break.
“I feel good, but for me I judge a lot of things in how you can get better as an individual, how can I help this team win more games,” said Randle, who has been on a scoring rampage the past month. “I still feel I have to find a way to close out games better individually and help us more as a team down the stretch.”
The loss dropped the Knicks 4½ games behind the play-in tournament with 15 games to play. The Knicks (28-39) face the Nets in Brooklyn in a Sunday matinee.
The Knicks were 12 minutes away from their first four-game winning streak of the season before the Grizzlies exploded on a 34-12 run during the final period.
The Knicks were up 15 late in the third before turnovers led to a late Grizzlies 6-0 run in the final minute. Coach Tom Thibodeau blamed the loss on leading by just nine points entering the fourth.
“We didn’t close out the third,” Thibodeau said. “That was a big problem. We gave them life. They’re one of the best teams in the league. They’re not going to give it to you. You got earn it, and they came at us all game.”
“We always talk about executing at the end of quarters,” Randle added. “That little run was tough. It might’ve been a little difference on why we won or lost. Up 15, they cut it to nine. We lost by four. It was a big swing.
Morant, a longshot MVP candidate, was a whirling dervish and finished 14 of 33, attacking all night as the Knicks were unable to keep him out of the paint, where he also threw up deadly alley-oop lobs.
“He took 33 shots, so he’s going to make some,” Thibodeau said.
Morant put on all the fancy dribble moves in the fourth quarter and went behind the back for a driving layup that gave the Grizzles their first lead since the early in the game at 102-101 with 6:00 left.
Immanuel Quickley answered with a 3-pointer to put the Knicks back in front by two, but the Grizzlies then ran away with the night, proving too deep as six players hit double figures.
“He shot 14 for 33,” Randle said. “Which is if you’re going to give him 37 you want to give it to him like that. But he’s a great player. He made big players down the stretch. Credit to him to have the mental toughness down the stretch to still continue to attack and make plays.”
Randle was both a beast inside and a reindeer in the period with 12 points as he ran the floor with aplomb. The Knicks hit him with long passes for easy buckets — a fast-paced goal they have talked about much of the season.
The 31-18 fourth quarter also ruined a big night for starting point guard Alec Burks, who is starting to find himself as he scored 18 points. Mitchell Robinson filled up the boxscore (10 points, 16 rebounds, four blocks, three steals).
“They share the ball,” Barrett said. “They’re happy for each other’s success. They’re like a well-oiled machine.”