David Fizdale can make all the starting lineup changes he wants, but he couldn’t erase the Trail Blazers’ powerhouse backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Fizdale trotted out his sixth different starting lineup Tuesday after making his fourth major shake-up, and the Knicks took Portland to the final 10 seconds. But Lillard (29) and McCollum (31) combined for 60 points, Noah Vonleh blew two clutch free throws and Portland handed the Knicks their sixth straight loss, 118-114, at the Garden.
The Knicks, who play in Boston on Wednesday, fell to 4-14. But they aren’t in danger anytime soon of matching their worst start. In Derek Fisher’s first season (2014-15), the club started 4-20.
In nine of the Knicks’ 14 losses, they have either been tied or ahead in the fourth quarter. The Blazers’ clinching bucket actually came on a Lillard miss as Evan Turner was there all alone for the easy putback with nine seconds left, giving Portland a four-point lead.
Trey Burke, who finished with 19 points, called out his mates on the recent road trip for their inability to close out games, believing they feel happy to be close.
“It’s not the last possession that is the determining factor,’’ Burke said after a 10-point third-quarter lead evaporated. “It was the last five minutes as we’ve been talking about. We have to figure out a way to get big stops, consecutive stops. It’s the No. 1 priority right now.
“We’re playing teams down the wire and coming up short — ongoing story all year. We need to own it. We’re in the storm right now and there’s beauty in the storm and have to find a way to get out of it.”
Fizdale wanted a more veteran group against the Blazers (12-5) than his recent three-rookie alignment, and that included Vonleh in at power forward for struggling lottery pick Kevin Knox, who further regressed with a two-point, 1-of-3 shooting night.
By starting three rookies previously, Fizdale suddenly seemed sensitive to a perception he no longer cares about winning and that their tanking was in full mode before Thanksgiving.
“Every game we play to win,’’ Fizdale said before the game. “There’s never a time we step out on the court not to win the game. These guys are putting their heart and soul in this. Me and the staff are putting our heart and soul in winning every game.’’
Vonleh put forth a powerful game — 14 points and 14 rebounds — but didn’t close. With 1:03 left, Vonleh drove to the hoop and got tripped, sending him to the line. But he failed to gain revenge on his former team, bricking two free throws with the Knicks down two — and missing two others in the fourth. Lillard answered with a 20-footer, nearly icing it at 116-112.
“I just got to take more time,’’ Vonleh said. “I rushed them. I got to hit those free throws.”
The Blazers still needed that one giant putback to knock the Knicks out completely. Lillard missed on a turnaround, but Turner was free at the bucket. Vonleh said he was boxing out Jusuf Nurkic, but Burke had come over to help on Lillard.
Along with Vonleh, Fizdale restored Enes Kanter to the starting lineup over rookie Mitchell Robinson. Kanter posted an unusually quiet line (seven points, five rebounds, six assists) as did Mario Hezonja, who made his first Knicks start for rookie Allonzo Trier. Hezonja had an invisible game, scoring just two points (1-of-5).
Tim Hardaway Jr. led the Knicks with 32 points in another losing mission. Emmanuel Mudiay scored 14 points, getting to the basket for layups and knocking down two 3-pointers.
The game saw a 21-point swing in a 12-minute span of the second half. Mudiay’s 3-pointer with 7:15 left in the third put the Knicks up 10 points. The Blazers went up 104-93 early in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Knicks 39-18.
The Knicks had allowed 128 points or more in four of their previous five outings, so surrendering 118 to the Lillard/McCollum Blazers on 48 percent shooting qualified as an improvement. Fizdale overall was pleased.
“I was just trying to find anybody that could get over the screens and face those guys — they’re elite,’’ Fizdale said. “We had a lot of improvement. I thought defensively we took a step forward. They’re one of the top two or three backcourts in the NBA. They do that to a lot of people. We didn’t have a lot of system mistakes.”