Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart left ‘frustrated’ after Knicks let lead slip against Thunder

The Knicks turned a four-point halftime deficit into a 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. But in just two minutes of play – all with Jalen Brunson on the bench at the start of the fourth – the visitors hit their first six shots to erase the lead and flip the game in their favor.

“Obviously extremely frustrated,” Josh Hart said after the 113-112 defeat, the Knicks’ second straight loss.

The guard exhaled sharply before continuing, “We gotta figure out a way when JB's out to get good looks, quality looks. Get guys in the proper position, play to their strengths. I think that's one of the big things. So, look at it and see what we can do better.”

The Knicks managed to grab a one-point lead by the time Brunson entered with 7:42 to play, but the damage was done as Oklahoma City had found a rhythm (7-for-8 from the field) and completely stymied the New York offense, holding them to 2-for-6 shooting with three turnovers.

“As a team, whether I'm out there or not, we need to be better,” Brunson, who finished with 30 points and seven assists, said. “It starts with making free throws, it starts with not turning the ball over, it doesn’t really matter who’s out there and you can’t blame anyone. As a team, we need to be better."

In the deciding quarter, the Thunder stayed hot to shoot 15-for-19 from the floor (5-for-8 from three) and at one point built an eight-point lead, their largest in the game. Despite that, Brunson’s driving layup with 4.1 seconds to play put the Knicks ahead by one – on a play that could have seen an and-1 called as the guard absorbed some contact.

Brunson said the refs told him after the game, “It wasn’t a foul.” Hart said he didn’t “understand it” but left it for the league and the referees to “look at and see if there's anything there” as far as missed calls.

“All we gotta do – all we can do – is just play hard and try to control the game as much as we can,” he said.

What they could control, but couldn’t stop was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander knocking down a 15-foot turnaround baseline jumper over Deuce McBride's outstretched arm with 1.8 seconds left to seal the Thunder's win.

“They came out ready to play in the fourth,” Brunson added. “They’ve been playing great all year so we knew we couldn't just walk into the fourth with a lead and think it was gonna be easy.”

The Knicks, coming off shooting 14-for-21 in the third, shot 7-for-23 from the floor (3-for-10 from three and 10-for-17 from the free-throw line) in the fourth.

Brunson finished a plus-17 in 35 minutes. The Knicks were minus-18 for the rest of the game.

For New York, Sunday was another game played shorthanded. It marked the seventh straight game without OG Anunoby and the 28th straight without Julius Randle. A pair of solid scorers – Randle averaging 24.0 points in 35.4 minutes and Anunoby 14.5 points in 35.2 minutes per game with the New York this season – who could help take the load off Brunson’s shoulders.

For Hart, their absence – and Mitchell Robinson’s as well – is not something he is letting himself use as an excuse now or down the stretch.

“I'm looking at it like this is a team that we're gonna have,” he said. “I think that's how we have to approach it. That those guys aren’t coming back and then, obviously, we'll be pleasantly surprised if they come back.

“I'm not in those medical conversations or anything like that, so I don't know s--- from s---. But we gotta approach it every game and the end of the season that those guys aren't coming back and if do be pleasantly surprised.”

With eight regular season games remaining and the Knicks in a virtual tie with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, Brunson said the key to winning games down the stretch is to maintain focus.

“We gotta continue to prepare and can't just turn it on once the playoffs start,” he said. “Obviously we're in a decent position, but we can't get comfortable and that has to be our mindset moving forward.”