Rapid Reaction: Rockets 104, Knicks 96

WHAT IT MEANS: You knew there would be growing pains with this Knicks team.

But no one thought they’d be this painful this early in the year.

Two nights after blowing a 21-point lead against the lowly Timberwolves in Minnesota, the Knicks came home and simply didn’t compete in an ugly loss to a Rockets team that came into the game with two wins -- and without Yao Ming.

The only positive to be taken from Sunday night’s 104-96 loss at the Garden – the fifth straight for the 3-7 Knicks – is that they didn’t blow a lead. But that’s because they barely had one, trailing for all but 18 seconds of the game’s final 32 minutes.

They trailed by nine going into the fourth quarter and simply did not compete in the final period, falling behind by as many as 18 in the fourth. They scored just 21 points and didn’t convert a field goal until there was 4:37 to go in the game as they were showed with boos from the Garden crowd in the final period.

And it doesn’t get any easier for Mike D’Antoni’s crew. They hit the road for the first of two four-game trips, starting this one in Denver on Tuesday. Maybe the road will do this downtrodden team some good. The Houston loss left them with just one win in five games at home.

T-MAC TRADE HAUNTS KNICKS: One condition of the Knicks' three-team deal to land Tracy McGrady last February stipulated that the Knicks would swap first-round picks with Houston if they finish in the lottery and Houston makes the playoffs.

So not only did the Knicks lose their fourth straight, they also helped the Rockets move one game closer to snatching their first-round pick.

Donnie Walsh reiterated on Sunday night that he regrets giving away that draft pick to get McGrady but defended the deal by pointing out that it freed up plenty of cap space for the Knicks, who struck out in their attempt to land LeBron James over the summer.

One of the prime pieces in that trade, Knicks 2009 first-round draft pick Jordan Hill, was back in town last night with Houston. He had a couple thunderous dunks and key offensive rebounds. He couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face after throwing down a transition dunk to put the Rockets up seven in the second.

MOZGOV: D’Antoni decided to reinsert Timofey Mozgov into the starting lineup after basically benching the rookie for two games and starting Wilson Chandler in his place. D’Antoni said prior to the game that he wanted more height in his starting five. So Chandler, who has thrived as both a starter and sixth man, would be again coming off the bench.

How did that work out?

Mozgov played 17 minutes and had 5 rebounds, 2 fouls and two blocks. His lone impact on the offensive end came late in the third quarter. With 2:35 to go in the third he had a put-back dunk that cut the Rockets’ lead to 77-73 and drained an 18-foot jumper a minute and a half later to cut Houston’s lead to six. The Knicks were outscored by ten when he was on the floor.

Chandler scored 17 and grabbed seven rebounds in 38 minutes.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Knicks can get a glimpse of what Donnie Walsh hopes is the future on Tuesday night when they travel to Denver to take on Carmelo Anthony and the Nuggets. Anthony hasn’t signed Denver’s three-year extension yet and appears open to testing the free-agent market in the offseason -- if Denver doesn’t trade him first.

The Knicks don’t seem to have the personnel to swing a deal with Denver, unless they get a third team involved. So the Knicks will likely be resigned to pursuing Anthony in the offseason.

The Nuggets entered play on Sunday at 5-4 with Anthony averaging 25 a night. The Knicks will also face old buddy Al Harrington in Denver. From there, the Knicks will hit Golden State, Sacramento and Los Angeles to take on the Clippers in the first of two four-game West Coast road trips.