SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The opener of the Knicks’ four-game West Coast swing was flexed into a nationally televised game pitting two of the NBA’s hottest rising teams.
That TNT audience watched the Knicks lose their most important player again, and fall short of completing a stunning comeback without Jalen Brunson against the dynamic Kings, the league’s highest-scoring squad.
The Knicks erased a 21-point third-quarter deficit Thursday night before suffering their second straight defeat following a nine-game winning streak, 122-117, at Golden 1 Center.
“We talked about it. We obviously didn’t like how we started the game. They’re obviously a very explosive team. I thought the second half was a lot better,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We were able to get some stops and had a chance to win the game at the end.”
Far more significant, however, was Brunson’s return to the lineup lasting only two quarters. After missing two games with a sore left foot, the Knicks’ $104 million point guard didn’t come out for the second half because of the same injury, the team announced.
Brunson had scored 19 points on 6-for-12 shooting in 19 minutes before halftime.
“He just re-aggravated it, but I haven’t talked to the medical people yet,” Thibodeau said. “Just soreness.”
Asked if Brunson is headed back to New York for tests, Thibodeau added: “Not that I know of. I’ll speak with the medical people. Let them do their job. You gotta trust them, and you trust Jalen. They’ll evaluate him, and whatever he needs, we’ll make sure he gets.”
Sixth man Immanuel Quickley endured his second straight terrible shooting performance since netting 38 points over 55 minutes in Sunday’s double-overtime win in Boston. He finished with three points on 1-for-11 from the floor, including seven of eight misses from 3-point range.
RJ Barrett scored 25 points and Julius Randle had 23 for the Knicks, who fell to 39-29 ahead of games against the Clippers and the Lakers on back-to-back days beginning Saturday in Los Angeles. Barrett and Randle combined to shoot 3-for-20 from 3-point distance.
“Bad start, tough loss, came back, didn’t shoot the ball well, it goes like that sometimes,” Randle said. “One possession game, we needed a stop, didn’t get it. Happens like that sometimes. So regroup, get to LA, regroup, get a win.”
When asked about Brunson, Randle added: “It’s obviously going to be tough to replace his production. We’ll do it. We’re up to the task.”
Quentin Grimes scored 19 points and Josh Hart played another all-around strong game off the bench for the Knicks, filling the stat sheet with nine points, 15 rebounds (eight on the offensive glass), seven assists and three steals.
The Knicks slashed a 21-point deficit to seven by the end of the third quarter before scoring seven straight points early in the fourth — featuring dunks by Isaiah Hartenstein and Obi Toppin — to close within 92-91.
Barrett’s straightaway 3-pointer tied the score with 8:15 remaining, but All-Star point guard De’Aaron Fox responded with a trey and a driving dunk for a 103-96 lead. Fox finished with 23 points and seven assists after missing Sacramento’s previous game with a hamstring injury.
Randle sank two consecutive buckets to close the gap to two with less than a minute to play, but Fox drove the left side for a 117-113 game with 25.4 seconds remaining and Randle turned the ball over at the other end.
Domantas Sabonis recorded a triple-double with 24 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists while Malik Monk added 19 points for the Kings, the No. 2 team in the Western Conference at 39-26.
The Kings used their speed and got to the rim from the outset, hitting eight of their first 10 shots for an 18-9 lead midway through the first quarter. At the other end, the Knicks missed nine of their first 11 attempts, including a 1-for-5 start by Randle, who scored only four points in the first 12 minutes.
Sabonis finished the opening period with 11 on 5-for-6 shooting with three assists, but Brunson knocked down a couple of late 3-pointers and also netted 11 to keep the Knicks within 30-23 entering the second.
Barrett also clanked his first four field-goal attempts, but he netted four straight points early in the second as the Knicks closed within three. Harrison Barnes completed a 10-1 Sacramento spurt with a reverse layup and a converted free throw to push the lead back to a dozen.
The Knicks couldn’t stop Monk in the first half. He sank four 3-pointers and registered 14 points in the second quarter, sparking the 20-4 run that propelled the Kings to a 65-45 advantage with 1:49 remaining and a 19-point cushion at halftime.
Randle, Barrett and Quickley finished the first two quarters a combined 5-for-25 from the field, and the Knicks only were that close due to Brunson’s 19 points plus seven points and eight boards (five offensive) by Hart.
Brunson didn’t come back to start the third quarter, but the Knicks rallied without him — including two key 3-pointers by Grimes — and clawed back within 91-84 entering the final period.