The Knicks already had posted several impressive wins this season against some of the NBA’s expected top teams, including Milwaukee, Utah and Boston.
A toe-to-toe victory Sunday over the high-rolling Clippers would have rocked a full Garden from its foundation to the rafters, but the Knicks ran out of steam inside their empty home arena in a mostly entertaining 129-115 loss to Los Angeles.
Rookie point guard Immanuel Quickley appeared poised to front a comeback from a 12-point third-quarter deficit with 11 of his 25 points in the fourth, including a couple of 3-pointers to draw them within two with under eight minutes remaining.
But former Knicks forward Marcus Morris, who was traded at last year’s deadline for the eventual 25th overall pick that enabled the Knicks to draft Quickley, dropped in a corner 3 to reopen the LA lead to nine. Kawhi Leonard (28 points) pushed it back over double digits with 5:40 to go as the Clippers (16-5) pulled away.
Reggie Jackson finished with 18 points and Paul George had 17 as the Clippers shot 17-for-38 (43.2 percent) from 3-point range.
Julius Randle led the Knicks with 27 points and 12 rebounds, and RJ Barrett added 23 on 9-for-14 shooting for the Knicks (9-12). They will play their next two games Monday and Wednesday in Chicago, where Tom Thibodeau coached the Bulls from 2010-15.
From the start, this wasn’t a typical lethargic afternoon tipoff at MSG, as both teams shot better than 50 percent from the floor in a back-and-forth first half. The result was a high-scoring 66-65 lead for the Clippers at the break.
The Knicks buried eight of their first 10 from the field, including five early points apiece from Randle and Reggie Bullock, to grab an 18-15 lead midway through the first quarter. Their lead was extended to seven on Barrett’s steal and slam with just under three minutes remaining, but the period ended with the Knicks ahead, 31-29.
Quickley provided another spark off the bench with 10 points in the second quarter, while Randle and Barrett combined for 29 before halftime, helping the Knicks stay within one at intermission.
The Clippers netted the first seven points of the second half and they built the first double-digit lead (12) for either team, with Jackson scoring 10 in the session for a 101-91 game entering the final quarter.