NEW YORK -- A faint chant of "We want Me-lo" started up on the Seventh Avenue side of Madison Square Garden late in the fourth quarter of one of the New York Knicks' worst losses of the season, gaining about as much traction as a bald tire trying to grip one of those strips of black ice currently covering this city's winter-weary secondary streets.
Almost as soon as the chant started, it faded away.
Kind of similar to the energy level with which the Knicks, ahem, performed.
"I just don't think we had the energy out there to be a playoff team," coach Mike D'Antoni said after a 116-108 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night. "For whatever reason, in the first half we just didn't come out and play. You could see it on our face, the energy level, mostly on the defensive end, but it transferred to the offensive end."
When they weren't giving up dunk after dunk after dunk, the Knicks were shooting blanks from 3-point range in a first half in which they fell behind by 15. The deficit reached 20 in the third quarter before the Knicks started showing some signs of life, but their comeback crumbled as quickly as that chant faded, with Randy Foye looking like the player due in the arena on Friday night, Kobe Bryant, as he scored 17 of his 24 points in the final 12 minutes.
From an effort standpoint, it was as egregious a loss as the Knicks have had all season. Four of the Clippers' first seven buckets came on dunks, two others on layups, and the degree of difficulty posed by the Knicks' defense was negligible for a majority of the reminder of the game.
Amare Stoudemire echoed D'Antoni's statement.
"We're not playing hard; we're not getting loose balls. Seems like we're afraid out there," he said. "I said it before the game. We've got to have supreme focus.
"I guess they figured I was talking to the wall because we didn't come out with any focus," Stoudemire added.
"You can tell before the game. You can tell by facial expressions and body [language] that guys weren't ready to go."
The loss was New York's 10th in 14 games and dropped the Knicks to 26-25, with the game against the Los Angeles Lakers threatening to drop them back to .500 for the first time since they were 9-9 on Nov. 28.
"You think you kind of right the ship a little bit, and then we come out blah," D'Antoni said in what were easily some of his most critical comments of the entire season. "I mean, there will be times when you play bad, and there's times when the ball doesn't go in, and there's times you lay an egg. But it should never be because you just don't have the necessary heart or desire to do it.
"And you might not feel good, or it might not be working that night, but to me that was just a total lack of commitment to beat a team that's talented. They're a young talented team. And if you give them free rein, then they're pretty good," D'Antoni said.
With the Carmelo Anthony trade discussions seemingly at a standstill until the Nuggets and the Knicks both start to get realistic with what they are asking for/offering, this was a night to witness just how mediocre the Knicks can be when they carry themselves with the demeanor of a team that has an overinflated sense of self-worth, believing they've captured the city's interest when all they've really done is shown themselves capable of remaining relevant simply by virtue of being in position to compete for a playoff spot in a weak conference.
Heck, they did that back in 2003-04 when Stephon Marbury was the major midseason acquisition and the team finished with 39 victories -- two fewer than they needed to be a .500 team -- before being swept in the first round by the New Jersey Nets.
Is that the road they are headed down this season if Donnie Walsh is unable or unwilling to put together an enticing enough package to acquire Anthony from the Nuggets?
That is the question the Knicks need to ask themselves as they try to regroup from this loss and get ready for their final three games before the All-Star break against the Lakers, the Nets (in Newark on Saturday night), and the Atlanta Hawks.
Are they the caliber of team that can not merely make the playoffs, but also make some noise in the playoffs?
Does there come a point in time when the necessary level of effort comes naturally instead of needing to be prodded out of them?
Is there any hope for a team whose defense was so matador-like that the Clippers' front line of Blake Griffin, Ryan Gomes and DeAndre Jordan combined to shoot 18 of 25 in the first half, with every single one of Jordan and Griffin's 11 field goals coming on layups or dunks?
"Sometimes we don't want to do the effort first; we want to see if we can win first without having to go full-out, and then when we have to go full-out, we do, but it's not good enough," D'Antoni said.
Several players said D'Antoni seemed especially angry in his postgame comments to the team. This loss reeked of the lack of effort that was so evident nearly a month ago when the Knicks lost both games of a two-game homestand against Sacramento and Phoenix -- a slide D'Antoni has repeatedly referenced as one of the lowest points of the season.
This was a night when the Knicks expected things to come easy against an opponent playing its third game in four nights, a team that didn't arrive at its Manhattan hotel until the middle of the night after playing Tuesday in Orlando.
What the Knicks learned is that nothing comes easy when you don't really try -- sort of like that chant that rose up and then died such a quick death as it became apparent that the Knicks' fourth-quarter push would be too little, too late.
"It was lack of energy, a lack of focus, a lot of things," Raymond Felton said. "We're playing for the playoffs, that's what it is. It's the second half of the season, it's already here. And everybody is turning it up now, no matter who it is. That's a team trying to fight for the eighth spot in the West, we're fighting to keep our position in the East. So we're playing for something every night, and that's the way we've got to play."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.