HOUSTON — OK. At the top, we’ll start with the cool, detached, rational truth of the situation. The Knicks didn’t lose this game because of one bad referee — even if that ref’s boss later admitted of the appalling call that ultimately decided the game: “It shouldn’t have been made.”
The best that could’ve occurred out of the comically worst-case scenario that unfolded at the end was overtime, and the depleted Knicks would’ve had to play those five minutes even more diminished. That would’ve been a tall task.
So there’s that.
The Knicks also stumbled and bumbled and fumbled their way into a 19-point hole in the second quarter, and after scampering back in the third found themselves down by 11 midway through the fourth. Every time the Knicks stood to deliver a knockout punch to the Rockets, the Rockets punched back instead.
So maybe there were opportunities for Jacyn Goble to avoid being anointed Public Enemy No. 1 long before he blew one of the most egregious whistles you’ll ever hear on a basketball court. Maybe if the Knicks had played a little better across the game’s first 47 minutes, 59.7 seconds, it wouldn’t have mattered what happened in the final three-tenths of a second.
If that makes your stomach grumble a little quieter, go ahead and talk yourself into those being the reasons why the Knicks lost this 105-103 gut-punch of a basketball game.
That’s probably the healthy thing to do.
Probably better than watching that final sequence, after Jalen Brunson — his words: “I didn’t play well the majority of the game” — tried to make up for it by draining a 15-foot step-back shot to tie matters at 103 with 8.3 seconds left in the game.
Better than seeing the Knicks play terrific defense out of the timeout, Precious Achiuwa (who’d previously beaten Alperen Sengun on a critical jump ball that set up Brunson’s heroics) force Jalen Green into traffic, and then a desperate heave out to Aaron Holiday, who tossed up his own hopeless hurl from around 30 feet or so …
And you’d better stop it there, before seeing Brunson close out, on what 99.9 percent of the time is the final prelude to overtime. That’s what most of the 16,790 inside Toyota Center thought. It came as a complete surprise to them that Goble raised his right arm. Foul. On Brunson. Three shots for Holiday.
Because once we toss aside the cool, detached, rational truth we are left with this:
One of the most absurd and inexplicable calls you’ll ever see a ref make. In any sport. At any level.
“Great call,” Brunson said dryly. “Next question.”
This was a good half-hour after the final buzzer, after Ed Malloy walked over to the Knicks’ huddle where Tom Thibodeau was trying to draw up a miracle play with what he felt should have been about two-tenths of a second left after Holiday purposely missed the third free throw and Josh Hart grabbed the rebound.
Malloy waved his arms. Game over. Thibodeau had previously drawn his first technical of the season at the end of the first half after Donte DiVincenzo had been called for a kickout foul after getting hit shooting a 3, awfully similar to the sequence at game’s end. For this and for other various misdemeanors — such as the Rockets shooting 33 free throws, the Knicks just 12 — he let Malloy have it with a barrage of his preferred word.
It wasn’t “fudge,” “fuel,” “fund,” “fuzz,” “fuse,” fury,” or “funk,” if you were guessing any of those. But you definitely got the first two letters right.
Thirty minutes later, the wrath reduced to a low boil, Thibodeau tried being alternately philosophical (“Tough way to lose a game”) and sarcastic (asked his opinion on the referees, he said, “Great. Great.”)
“Great call,” Brunson said again. “Next question.”
And then he said it a third time. The way things are going for the Knicks right now, it’s lucky he didn’t sprain his tongue as it poked into his cheek.
It will matter little to the Knicks that Malloy himself admitted to a pool reporter after reviewing the play that Goble got it dead wrong. It’s not Goble’s first offense either. A year ago, after blowing a call late in a Lakers-Celtics game (he missed a late foul against LeBron James) the official NBA referees Twitter account apologized on his behalf, saying: “Like everyone else, refs make mistakes.”
This one just happened to send the entirety of the Knicks’ traveling party and that faction of basketball New York now engaged nightly in the Knicks’ travels and travails into a rage that would make Joe Pesci proud. They weren’t called clowns by Goble; they were just burned by him tripping over his big floppy shoes at the worst possible moment.
The Knicks still might’ve lost in overtime. DiVincenzo was gone, joining the M*A*S*H triage list with a sore hammy. It would’ve been a grind just getting to the end. No guarantees, no. But the Knicks would’ve sure liked to have had a shot to play that overtime. They deserved that chance. They were jobbed, is what they were. A shame.