NEW YORK -- The Knicks are slipping, and we'll present the possible reasons why in the form of a quiz.
The slippage is coming from:
A) Being a little too pleased with themselves for being above .500 with the midpoint of the season just one game away.
B) Being a little too undersized in the middle when Ronny Turiaf is unable to play.
C) Being a little distracted by the ongoing Melo Drama involving a certain player from Denver.
D) Being an average team that is quickly learning how difficult it can be to deal with above-average expectations from an invigorated fan base.
E) All of the above.
The answer, of course, is E.
And Exhibit A in establishing Answer E was Monday afternoon's 129-121 loss to the Phoenix Suns, in which the Knicks' inability to get defensive stops down the stretch doomed them to their fourth loss in five games.
With a three-game road trip against a trio of quality opponents looming, the Knicks were reminded of how far they still need to go to go from being an entertaining curiosity to being a legitimate, contending team.
"We came out again not fired up and focused," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I think we just had a little bit of a mental letdown, and it was regrettable. We will be back. This definitely should be a wake-up call."
This loss to the 18-21 Suns followed a loss three days earlier against the lowly Sacramento Kings, which was preceded by defeats against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers over the final three games of a West Coast trip.
New York's record fell to 22-18 despite getting 41 points from Amare Stoudemire, his most in a Knicks uniform, along with 23 from Wilson Chandler and 17 from Danilo Gallinari in his return from a two-week absence due to a sprained knee.
The crucial stretch came midway through the fourth quarter, with the score tied at 106. Raymond Felton rushed a jump shot, and Steve Nash (15 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds) drilled a 3-pointer at the other end. Felton then came back down and fired a pass to Stoudemire that was too high and sailed out of bounds, and Vince Carter (29 points) had a driving layup and a 3-pointer on the Suns' next two possessions.
Phoenix scored on its following three possessions, too -- the final points coming on a short jumper in the lane by Hakim Warrick for the last of the Suns' 22 second-chance points (off 14 offensive rebounds) to give the Suns a 121-112 lead with 1:45 remaining. That effectively ended the Knicks' chances to finish this brief, two-game homestand with any kind of positive momentum.
If there was a single positive for the Knicks to take from this Monday matinee, it was team president Donnie Walsh's disclosure before the game that he believes he can "probably" acquire more than one first-round draft pick -- which he would presumably use in his ongoing efforts to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets.
The unending Melo Drama took several turns in the past 24 hours, with conflicting reports on whether the Nets had been granted permission by the Nuggets to speak to Anthony, followed by Anthony's statement after his game Sunday night in San Antonio that he really has no interest in speaking to the Nets.
"I could probably get more than one, but I'm not going to say how many," Walsh said. "But I'm confident I can get a first-round pick."
The statement was a jump from Walsh's previous comments regarding what is currently available to the Knicks on the trade market, and it is certain to move the needle in the unending Anthony trade watch. The Knicks remain Anthony's preferred destination, but the Nuggets still would prefer to do a trade with the Nets because of the bundle of assets the Nets are willing to relinquish.
Walsh did not comment specifically on Anthony, but his disclosure that he could "probably" acquire more than one first-round pick was an indication that the Knicks have the means to put together a trade package that bears a little more resemblance to what the Nuggets are seeking if they decide to trade Anthony.
"I'd love to have him out of the West and in the East," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "In my opinion, he's about the most efficient scorer that there is in the league, from the standpoint of being able to drive the ball, get to the foul line, his jump-shooting ability and the range he shoots it with. I don't know if there's another player in the league that is that powerful but can shoot it with that kind of range."
Even if the Knicks somehow manage to get Anthony, the loss to the Suns showed just how valuable Turiaf (out with a bruised hip) is to them now that Timofey Mozgov has been exiled to D'Antoni's own private Siberia.
Time and again, the Suns scored with ease in the paint, with Stoudemire being especially passive on defense whenever he felt he needed to guard against foul trouble harder than he was guarding whatever Phoenix player was attacking the rim.
Stoudemire also picked up his 12th technical foul for playfully but forcefully intentionally bumping ex-teammate Channing Frye after he fouled Frye on a drive to the basket, and another four techs will earn him an automatic one-game suspension -- as will technicals Nos. 18, 20, 22, etc.
"I'm going to have to play with a zipper on my lips," Stoudemire said.
The technical on Stoudemire was issued by quick-triggered and occasionally short-tempered referee Joey Crawford, who was in rare form in asserting his presence and making his voice heard. During one juncture in the second quarter, Crawford screamed at Gentry and D'Antoni to both return to their seats, which prompted Carter to offer the following advice to Crawford: "Relax, Joey."
"No! You relax!" Crawford shouted back.
But the only thing that relaxed from that point on was the Knicks' defense, and that was their demise on a day when they again were reminded how far they still have to go to make the leap to the NBA's next level.
The Knicks are in a stretch of 10 consecutive games against teams from the West, which makes it convenient and somewhat easy to forget that the Knicks have a very small number of wins against the best teams in their own conference. Throw out their two victories against the Chicago Bulls (who haven't made anyone's elite teams list yet), and you know how many quality victories they have against the East's elite?
No quiz on that question, just an answer.
And that answer is a big, fat, round zero.
That's why they still are following every twist and turn of the Melo Drama, waiting for the moment when the Nuggets finally reach out to them and tell them exactly what it'll take to acquire that second superstar. And if that answer includes the phrase "at least two No. 1 picks," the best news for the Knick to come out of Monday's loss was Walsh's disclosure that acquiring those two No. 1s is something he feels could be achievable.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.