Before the game, Tom Thibodeau confirmed that Gordon Hayward was indeed a New York Knicks’ free-agent target.
“We looked at all the free agents. And so, we’ll just leave it at that, but we know how talented he is,” Thibodeau said of Hayward. “We had him rated pretty high on our board. There were a number of [top] guys who we thought would fit us. It didn’t work out this time. And we’ll see how it works out in the future.”
What didn’t work out for the Knicks has been working out pretty well for the Charlotte Hornets.
Hayward wasted no time reminding the Knicks what they missed out in the free agency.
The rejuvenated wingman fired 34 points in leading the Hornets’ manhandling of the fast-fading Knicks, 109-88, Monday night.
The 6-4 Hornets have won their last four games — their first four-game winning streak in more than two years — with Hayward playing worthy of the four-year $120-million gamble.
Hayward has rediscovered his All-Star form during the streak with a 29.2-point average on 55 percent shooting.
In contrast, the Knicks are freefalling and struggling to score. They could have used Hayward’s shotmaking as the Knicks failed to reach 90 points for the third straight game.
Hayward dropped 28 points in the first half — the best scoring half in his career — as the Hornets got off to a hot start.
The Knicks came back from 17 points down and held the lead momentarily, 38-37, on an RJ Barrett floater. But the Hornets quickly took it back and led the rest of the way.
Kevin Knox knocked down five threes in the first half to keep the Knicks afloat. His late triple trimmed the gap, 57-51, at the half. It proved to be the Knicks’ last gallant stand. Knox led the Knicks with a season-high 19 points off the bench.
Hayward scored only six in the second half, but his teammates picked up the slack.
The Hornets entered the game as the league’s best passing team. They had 28 assists with their point guards Devonte Graham and rookie LaMelo Ball accounting for half of their total.
Ball, who recently became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, flirted with another. He finished with eight points, 14 boards, and seven assists.
The Hornets’ defense, too, was sharp with their energy overwhelming the gassed Knicks, who were playing on back-to-back nights.
Julius Randle was held down to a season-low 11 points and five rebounds after coming into this game, averaging 23.2 points and 11.8 rebounds. He was a dismal 2-of-9 from the field.
”Julius is getting double-teamed and triple-teamed right now with his post up, trying to get the ball out of his hands, and we can operate off of that,” Thibodeau said. ”We have to have good spacing, and right now we are hesitating a little bit, and I don’t want them to do that.”
The Knicks kept missing their outside shots, with RJ Barrett misfiring all of his five three-point attempts, including an airball. Barrett has now missed 19 of his last 21 three-point attempts.
Immanuel Quickley is also in the midst of a shooting slump, going 2-for-24 from the field in his last four games. The rookie guard was 1-of-10 against the Hornets.
But Thibodeau praised Quickley’s overall play as part of the second unit that sparked their first-half comeback.
Quickly had three points, four rebounds, and three assists.
The Knicks’ second unit provided the silver lining in another blowout loss.
“I thought our bench particulary in the first half, played really well. Even though Quick didn’t shoot the ball well, he played well. I thought Nerlens gave us good minutes, and I thought Kevin was terrific,” Thibodeau said. “That was positive. And now we have to get other people to play better.”
Nerlens Noel was productive in 15 minutes producing four points, five rebounds, a steal, and two blocks. Starter Mitchell Robinson finished with a solid double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds, two steals, and two blocks) but was a team-worst +/- -27.
Austin Rivers, who received his first start with Reggie Bullock unavailable due to a sore right hip, scored 13 points in a team-high 38 minutes.
The Knicks will go home to host the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday in a nationally televised game. They will face Kevin Durant, another free agent that got away, for the first time since he spurned them in the 2018 free agency.
The Nets, though, are struggling with drama unfolding as Kyrie Irving continues to miss games due to personal reasons.
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