HOUSTON — The Knicks were hosed and even the NBA admitted it.
A phantom foul on a shot that had no chance of going in turned a tie game into a Knicks defeat on Monday night, sending the Knicks to the locker room on a three-game losing streak and determined to avoid a fine.
Aaron Holiday was launching a prayer with 0.3 seconds remaining, a one-handed shot that should’ve marked the start of overtime, not the game-winning play.
But referee Jacyn Goble whistled a foul on Jalen Brunson, who was closing out hard but maintaining a vertical stance with minimal contact below the release.
Holiday then buried two of his three foul shots, breaking the tie in the final moments of Monday’s stunning 105-103 loss to the Rockets.
“Tough way to lose a game,” an exasperated Tom Thibodeau said. “Tough way to lose a game.”
Over an hour later, NBA official Ed Malloy, who was the crew chief at the game, acknowledged to a pool reporter that they blew it.
“After seeing it during postgame review, the offensive player was able to return to a normal playing position on the floor,” Malloy said. “The contact, which occurred after the release of the ball, therefore is incidental and marginal to the shot attempt. And it should not have been called.”
On the original live-action call, Malloy added, “it was felt that the lower body contact was illegal contact.”
Thibodeau didn’t have a challenge remaining to review the call because the Knicks coach used it unsuccessfully for a blocking foul on Taj Gibson in the second quarter.
Brunson was the hero just seconds earlier.
He drained a step-back over Dillon Brooks with 8.3 seconds remaining, knotting the score and making up for an inefficient performance.
But then the zebra suits took over. Precious Achiuwa, continuing his strong defensive night, rejected Jalen Green at the rim before the rebound went to Holiday.
Brunson may have made contact with Holiday’s body before the release, but there’s no way the game should’ve ended like that.
Brunson, the savvy All-Star, understood that keeping his real thoughts to himself saved fine money.
“Great call, next question,” he repeated three times.
Josh Hart, standing next to Brunson, turned the question back to a reporter who said he didn’t see a foul.
“I want you to write that,” Hart said.
It was the second time in a little over a year that Goble blew an important call.
Last season, he was the official that missed a clear foul that would’ve sent LeBron James to the line to win the game for the Lakers.
The referees also had to apologize following that blunder.
The Knicks (33-20) dropped their third straight and fell to 22-2 this season against teams with losing records.
The Rockets (23-29) got 23 points and five assists from Brooks, who served as a defensive tormenter to Brunson.
The Knicks next face a Valentine’s Day matchup in Orlando — a team that has already defeated them twice — which is followed by a much-needed All-Star break.
Brunson struggled all evening — especially in a miserable first half — but still finished with 27 points and nine assists on 10 of 25 shooting.
Donte DiVincenzo was the other main source of offense but left the game with about five minutes remaining while complaining about his hamstring.
He became the latest on the Knicks’ long infirmary line after playing 41 of a possible 43 minutes.
He finished with 23 points.
Thibodeau said there was no update in his postgame presser and DiVincenzo declined to talk to the media before receiving treatment.
The game took a turn toward the Rockets at the start of the fourth quarter, when the home team went on a 22-11 run to take a 11-point advantage.
The Knicks chipped away and eventually tied it on Brunson’s jumper.
The Rockets, playing without their point guard Fred VanVleet, snapped a four-game losing streak.
The first half was ugly from Brunson, who shot just 2 for 11 with seven points and three turnovers.
But the point guard was relentless.
He attacked and attacked, undeterred by the flubs and missed shots. And eventually, Brunson gave the Knicks a chance for a win that was taken away by Goble.
“The thing with the officials — this is the way I feel about that in general — is I don’t really care how tight the game is called. You can call it tight or you can call it loose. I just want consistency to be the same,” said Thibodeau, who noted that the Knicks took just 12 foul shots (the Rockets had 33). “And they have a job — they have to control and manage the game. That’s their No. 1 responsibility. They have to use their judgment and I have respect for that. So it didn’t go our way tonight.”