LOS ANGELES — The Knicks lost a second straight game and lost their cool on Friday night, but they gained a much-appreciated plug from Suns point guard Chris Paul after the game in Phoenix.
The Knicks will need to live up to Paul’s postgame praise when they face Paul’s former team, the Clippers, on Sunday at Staples Center.
No surprise, Paul was at the center of the Knicks’ collapse — and frustration — when Taj Gibson bodychecked him to the court in the fourth quarter.
Gibson picked up a flagrant foul and incited the largest crowd to see an NBA game this season — an 8,063 throng at Talking Stick Arena. The Suns proceeded to blow the Knicks out of the building the rest of the way in winning 128-105.
“This was such a good game for us,’’ Paul said. “Remember last time we played them in New York. That team right there, man, they play the right way. They play with the right energy. They make every game feel like a playoff game. They don’t take any possessions off. It’s good for us to have games against a team like that. They make you build that trust. They make you beat them.”
They were kind words from Paul, who made up with Gibson after the game. The Knicks would love to live up to those words as they try to break their two-game skid and finish off their six-game Western swing in style with two games in Los Angeles.
After facing the Clippers on Sunday, the Knicks get the defending champion Lakers on Tuesday at Staples Center.
“I’m not worried about both of them,’’ Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I’m just worried about the next one. I like these games for our team. I think it shows us where we are and the things we have to work on. That old saying — iron sharpens iron. Hopefully we can improve. It will help us down the road.’’
The Knicks need help against the NBA’s elite. Their record against the top four teams in the Western Conference (Jazz, Suns, Clippers, Nuggets) and the three teams that are ahead of them in the Eastern Conference (76ers, Nets, Bucks) is 3-13. And one of those wins, over Milwaukee, came when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Kris Middleton sat out.
The only other good news from the night in the desert was not losing ground in the standings. The Knicks stayed a half-game ahead of the Hawks for fourth place in the East. More importantly, the Knicks (37-20) remained two games in front of the seventh-seeded Celtics, who lost to the Bulls.
With five games left, the Knicks want no part of the play-in tournament that will decide the final two seeds of the playoffs.
“These games are just testing us,’’ Gibson said. “Every game is a test to get into the playoffs. We’re playing really good teams now. It’s only going to make us better. I love our group. I love how resilient we are. It’s only going to make us better.’’
The Knicks didn’t show that resiliency in Phoenix, when they lost a seven-point lead in the final minute of the third quarter and trailed by two entering the fourth. The Knicks missed electric rookie Immanuel Quickley, who was out with a sprained ankle, more than could’ve been imagined.
The NBA’s biggest crowd went bonkers over the sequence in which the Suns scored four points in the final 1.8 seconds of the third quarter, following an inbounding blunder by RJ Barrett.
This was finally a homecourt advantage at work for the first time during this pandemic season.
“You saw after that play, the fans went crazy and the players fed off that energy and got more juiced,’’ one player agent sitting courtside said.
Things will be less raucous at Staples Center, which only started allowing fans in late April. The Suns are now allowing 50-percent capacity. Staples Center is still capped at 3,250.
But the Clippers will be a handful. They came to the Garden on Jan. 31 and routed the Knicks 129-115 with all their weapons firing — Kawhi Leonard, who will be a free agent following the season, Paul George, and even ex-Knick Marcus Morris.
But the Knicks can’t lose their heads like they did in Phoenix. After the game, Gibson admitted his play against Paul was “a stupid foul on my end.’’
Thibodeau, who also had words with Paul, said it was “no big deal.’’ But a source said the Knicks coach started barking at Paul, initiating matters.
After the game, Knicks president Leon Rose and senior VP William Wesley hugged Paul to make sure no hard feelings existed. The chances are slim, but Paul could opt out of his contract this summer and become a free agent.