NEW YORK — The game should have never been this close.
The Knicks entered Thursday night winners of eight of their last 11 games, riding a high after blowing out the Charlotte Hornets to qualify for the In-Season Tournament quarterfinal in Milwaukee.
The Detroit Pistons own the league’s worst record and entered Madison Square Garden on a 15-game losing streak.
The Knicks were 14.5-point favorites, and in the front leg of a back-to-back before catching a flight up north to face the Toronto Raptors on Friday, were expected to make quick work of a young and inexperienced Pistons team.
Instead, it was the Pistons whose skid-snapping dreams nearly came true in front of a sellout crowd of 19,812 fans on Wednesday, and the Knicks who narrowly escaped with a 118-112 victory over the the NBA’s No. 1 cellar dweller.
The Knicks nearly held the Pistons without a field goal for the final five minutes of regulation until Cade Cunningham’s driving layup with about 40 seconds left in the fourth stopped the bleeding.
Tom Thibodeau tried to downplay the talent disparity between the two teams ahead of tipoff.
The Knicks have an All-Star in Julius Randle, a potential first-time All-Star in Jalen Brunson, one of the league’s best defenses and rebounding cores, as well as one of the deepest benches in all of basketball.
Against a Pistons team without two of its key players — Bojan Bogdanovic and ex-Brooklyn Net Joe Harris (shoulder) — the Knicks were expected to have their second straight blowout victory.
“You guys talk about that all the time, and I think, one, you can’t get here without being a great player. So everyone on their roster is an NBA player. That means they’re all great players,” Thibodeau said pregame. “So there’s ups and downs in a season, everyone’s capable of beating you. You have to be ready to play each and every night. And you have to put the necessary work into getting ready to play. That’s maybe the most important thing. To be mentally ready and then physically ready. But it starts with your mind.”
What ensued in place of a blowout was a lax Knicks effort that reflected in the rebounding department — an effort so par from the course, an explosive scoring night from Jalen Brunson couldn’t create true separation on the scoreboard.
Brunson lit up the Pistons for 42 points, including 16 in the first quarter and 37 by the start of the final period. He shot 7 of 11 from downtown, dished eight assists and drew MVP chants at the foul line late in the fourth quarter.
“We just kept fighting. They’re gonna play hard no matter what,” Brunson said in his walk-off interview. “For us we just continued to stick together. Anybody can beat anybody at the end of the night.”
The Knicks failed to generate quality offense elsewhere in their backcourt: Immanuel Quickley shot just 2 of 10 from the field for five points, and Quentin Grimes’ cold shooting streak continued with an 0-of-5 shooting night to bring him to 11-of-35 shooting in his last six games. RJ Barrett also shot 5 of 12 from the field, and Randle nearly triple-doubled with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
Cunningham scored 31 for the Pistons and Killian Hayes scored 23. Marcus Sasser gave Detroit 17 game-swinging points off the bench on 5-of-7shooting from downtown. The Pistons took a two-point lead into the fourth quarter.
That’s when Donte DiVincenzo came alive.
DiVincenzo closed the game in place of Grimes and shot 4 of 8 from downtown for 12 points.
When the Knicks are making threes, they are a difficult team to beat.
They’ll have to make a ton of treys if they’re going to secure a victory against a scrappy Toronto Raptors team in the second leg of a back-to-back on Friday.