NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 16: Frank Ntilikina #11 of the New York Knicks holds back Elie Okobo #2 of the Phoenix Suns as the referee tries to calm Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks aftr the game at Madison Square Garden on January 16, 2020 in New York City.The Phoenix Suns defeated the New York Knicks 121-98.NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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The New York Knicks had no answers for the Phoenix Suns trio of Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NY—The New York Knicks took one step forward with a dynamite win over the Miami Heat on Sunday. The issue is that every step forward is followed up with two steps back.

Blowout losses at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns are those two steps back. A loss to Milwaukee, even a thrashing, is somewhat understandable considering the Bucks are an absolute juggernaut on pace for more than 70 wins.

But a 23-point drubbing at the hands of the Suns? Unacceptable. Phoenix is a team that is a little further along on the development path, but not so much that they should be laying a whooping on the Knicks in their own building.

Ricky Rubio was the sparkplug for the Suns, energizing his team to a first-half lead that they would never relinquish. Phoenix head coach Monty Williams credits Rubio with the team’s improved assist numbers this season. The Suns were ranked 20th in the NBA in assists during the 2018-19 season, but have jumped to second in the league with Rubio running the show.

“He’s the catalyst for the assist numbers we have this year… Ricky’s sacrifice and his ability to set guys up has really been something that’s contagious on our team,” Williams said before the game. “We call it ‘good to great.’ We give up good shots for great shots.”

There’s no doubt Rubio was the catalyst for Phoenix on Thursday. His strong first half opened up the game for Deandre Ayton to bang in the paint for a season-high 26 points and a career-high 21 rebounds. Rubio and Ayton subsequently cleared the way for Devin Booker to score 17 of his 29 points in the second half.

All in all, the trio of Rubio, Booker, and Ayton combined for 80 of Phoenix’s 121 points. Again, the Knicks had absolutely no answer for this group.

As Knicks interim head coach Mike Miller put it, the Knicks were “behind plays” all night.

“We talked about taking things away and we didn’t take anything away,” Miller said after the game. “We were behind plays. We made a big emphasis on transition defense and rebounding and we thought from early on we weren’t sharp in those areas.”

Was this an issue about a lack of effort or simply poor execution? Miller wouldn’t outright say that the team’s effort was lackluster, but it’s easy enough to read between the lines.

“When we look out and see that we are behind the actions like that we have to play at a higher speed to be able to force something and take something away,” Miller admitted. “We didn’t do enough of that, we weren’t able collectively to take anything away or put any kind of pressure on their offense.”

Perhaps more frustrating than the loss itself is the fact that the Suns are in the same boat as the Knicks. Both squads are trying to develop a consistent winning culture with a bunch of young guys and some veterans peppered in the mix. Unfortunately for the Madison Square Garden crowd, the Suns look miles ahead in terms of reaching a final destination.

Marcus Morris Sr. understands what it’s like to play for winning teams and he knows when something isn’t right. The veteran pulled no punches after the game, citing the team’s effort as a reason for the loss.

“Our energy level is not where it’s supposed to be,” Morris told reporters in the locker room. “X’s and O’s, at the end of the day that only goes so far. Our energy just hasn’t been where it needs to be. We are halfway through the season, you would expect us to be more together and tighter, but at times we are pulling apart when we should be bringing it together.”

That’s concerning coming from the nine-year vet. Miller was a bit more measured with his response to the questions about the team’s effort, but Morris’ candor is more in line with reality. At the midway point of the season, the Knicks are 11-31 and on pace to surpass their 17-win total from last season.

Technically, that would constitute forward progress, but is it really? This team was supposed to compete and protect the Garden. They were billed as a bunch of “dogs” but that couldn’t be further from the truth right now.

“We are trying to do the same thing the Knicks are trying to do. We have young teams,” Williams said after the win. “They work hard. This is a really good organization. People are always taking shots at them. I played here, it’s a first-class place. We’re both trying to do the same thing. It’s hard to win in this league and everybody wants success right away. You guys [media] want it too, it’s really hard.

“We’re not doing anything different than them. Everybody can appreciate the Knicks because it’s New York, it’s the Mecca of basketball and at some point, if they continue to do what they are doing right now, they play hard every night, they play in the paint, they have good guys on their team, I think they are going to figure it out. We’re no different than the Knicks.”

These are kind words from Phoenix’s bench boss and a former Knick, but the two teams could not have looked more different on Thursday night. It’s back to the drawing board for Miller and the Knicks as they prepare for the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, a team they haven’t beaten since April of 2017.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.