The Knicks gutted out a tough comeback but ultimately lost to the Rockets on the back of a bad gamble and a controversial call.

In a physical battle where the referees certainly let the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets play on Monday night, an untimely foul called on Jalen Brunson for a close-out attempt on a desperate heave by Houston’s Aaron Holiday ended up being the brutal knockout punch in a game where the Knicks came back from double-digit deficits numerous times.

The foul was called with less than one second on the clock and sent Holiday to the free-throw line, where he made two out of three foul shots to give Houston a 105-103 win.

Holiday missed his final free throw attempt and the Knicks corralled the miss with 0.3 seconds left and attempted to call a time-out, but it was not granted and the game was ruled over. It was a brutal ending for the Knicks, in a game where there was plenty of physicality throughout and bodies on both sides hitting the deck often, without any whistles.

Moments before the controversial call, Brunson hit the game-tying step-back jumper with 8.1 seconds left to make it 103-103. On the other end of the court, Precious Achiuwa delivered a clutch block on a shot by Jalen Green.

In a scramble for the loose ball and the clock winding down, the ball found its way into Holiday’s hands for the desperation shot. It was off the mark, but when he was sent to the free-throw line, Holiday capitalized, giving the Knicks (33-21) their third straight loss in five days.

Tough from the start

New York quickly cooled down after a hot start to the game by Donte DiVincenzo, who made three 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the game to briefly give the Knicks the lead. They hit a wall after that, as the Rockets tightened up on defense. The Knicks’ big men were in early foul trouble, and that allowed Houston to also control the glass. Brunson struggled out of the gate and had one of his worst halves this season, as the Knicks fell behind the Rockets. Houston built a 57-43 halftime lead.

The Knicks regrouped after the break, starting the second half with a 16-4 run to cut away at the deficit and make it a one-possession game.

A reinvigorated Brunson led the charge, and it became a close game the remainder of the way.

Just when it seemed Houston appeared to be pulling away once again in the fourth quarter, thanks to a series of big shots by Holiday and Dillon Brooks, the Knicks used a 9-0 run to cut away at an 11-point deficit.

They remained resilient the rest of the way in a back-and-forth battle to the end before the game-changing foul at the buzzer sealed their fate.

Brunson had 20 of his 27 points in the second half. He also had four boards, seven assists, and five turnovers. DiVincenzo finished with 23 points on 9-of-21 shooting before exiting with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. Josh Hart added a 17-point, 11-rebound double-double, with five assists and a pair of steals. He shot 7-of-11 for the night. Bojan Bogdanovic led the bench with 15 points and four rebounds. Precious Achiuwa tallied eight points, 17 rebounds, and three blocks.

For Houston (24-29), Brooks had a team-high 23 points and shot 6-of-7 from three-point range. Jabari Smith Jr. added 20 points and seven boards. Alperen Sengun had 18 points and six assists. Jalen Green had 16 points, five boards and four assists. Aaron Holiday chipped in 18 points off the bench.

Brunson’s hot-and-cold night

The Knicks followed the lead of their star point guard. While DiVincenzo helped keep New York afloat and kept it from being an even worse first half, the Knicks were not the same when Brunson was limited to seven points on 2-of-11 shooting in the first half.

He was a much-improved 8-of-14 in the second half and helped spearhead a couple of rallies, before getting the gut-wrenching whistle at the end. While he and the Knicks’ staff were irate upon seeing replays, the call was irreversible and will be under scrutiny until the Knicks get a chance to bounce back in their next game.

Achiuwa was a beast defensively

He might not have scored many points, but he was a crucial player for the Knicks. His hustle on defense and on the glass was apparent, playing Sengun as well as could be asked of him given his size disadvantage.

Achiuwa racked up 17 boards, including nine offensive rebounds. He also finished with three blocks. It looked like he would’ve had the defensive stop of the game seconds before the final buzzer if the referees didn’t spoil it for the Knicks.

Hart provided a second-half spark

Moving in lockstep with Brunson, Hart hit a series of big shots in the second half, putting together a 17-point game on an efficient 7-of-11 shooting, a strong bounce-back game after only scoring four points in the previous loss to Indiana.

He hit a couple of threes during that third-quarter run that helped the Knicks get back in it. He was also a force on the glass, logging his eighth straight game with 10 or more rebounds. He also had five assists and two blocks.

Hat tip for Houston

The Rockets controlled the tempo for most of the game, and they provided a hard-nosed effort on defense throughout the night. They had five players score in double figures, but it felt like Brooks and Holiday had every big shot when their team needed it. They remained composed as a team whenever the Knicks were coming back, and Brooks and Holiday tormented New York all throughout, especially in crucial moments late in the game.

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