SAN ANTONIO — The Knicks were just relieved they weren’t blown out of Alamo City.
They received a holiday gift from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who rested superstar Kawhi Leonard on Thursday night for what the Spurs termed as “return from injury management.’’
Popovich made the right call and the Knicks returned below the .500 mark at 17-18 after the Spurs rolled to a 119-107 victory at AT&T Center. It was the Knicks’ fourth straight loss, made them 0-2 on a three-game trip that ends Saturday in New Orleans and worsened their road record to 2-12.
Playing the second night of a back-to-back, the Knicks were spewing “moral victory’’ talk around the locker room after LaMarcus Aldridge (25 points) and Pau Gasol (17 points) pummeled them for 42 points.
“We fought hard,’’ said Michael Beasley, who led the Knicks with 23 points and 12 rebounds. “It’s not an easy building to get a win. We showed grit. I loved how we played.’’
Kristaps Porzingis’ shooting slump continued, as he hit just 6 of 16 from the field and finished with 18 points. He was, however, a rim protector on defense, with six blocks before fouling out with 2:30 remaining.
“It’s never easy to accept a loss but you can be … not proud, but we fought hard,’’ Porzingis said. “I think we fought hard. I gave my everything. I’m exhausted right now after the back-to-back. I didn’t have a great game but gave it my all.”
Still, Porzingis only could do so much in trying to contain the Aldridge-Gasol tag team.
“The way they played they were able to pick us part a bit,’’ Porzingis said. “They have a thing going on with Pau and Aldridge playing high-low. They find each other. They don’t force things. It’s nice way to play basketball and I enjoy watching them.’’
In the past five games, since returning from a knee injury, Porzingis has shot just 33 of 96. Afterward, he reiterated an early season lament, saying he’s “mad” he isn’t getting more calls, particularly in this one against the Spurs.
“The attention I’m getting now, I won’t really get open, open looks much,’’ Porzingis said. “I have to if I’m on the block and the double-team doesn’t come, I’m going to shoot over guys. It makes me super mad that little touches on the elbow and arms, they effect my shot so much. I’m confused. I’m thinking I have to change my game. It makes me mad I’m not able to get those calls. I have to play through that. Maybe I’ll get them as I go forward.’’
Leonard has played just six games since making his season debut two weeks ago and Popovich felt his Spurs could beat the Knicks with him sitting out. Without Leonard, Long Island’s Danny Green burned his hometown team with four 3-pointers in the second half, finishing with 15 points as the Spurs moved to 25-11.
The Knicks were within three points midway through the third quarter before caving — and coach Jeff Hornacek was OK with it.
“I thought they played well,’’ Hornacek said. “The guys didn’t quit. That’s a good team there. The effort I thought was great.’’
Behind Green’s magic, the Spurs were 9-for-20 from beyond the 3-point line, while the Knicks were 5-for-13. Green’s last trey became the dagger with 10:15 left, putting the Spurs ahead 95-82. The absence of Tim Hardaway Jr., expected back in January, is starting to take full effect.
Meanwhile, the loss overshadowed Frank Ntilikina faring well against French point-guard pioneer Tony Parker. Parker scored 10 of his 14 points in the opening six minutes, when the Knicks rookie was not in the game.
Ntilikina finished with nine points (3 of 6) and a season-high 11 assists in 31:43 minutes. He and Parker spoke on the court after the final buzzer.
“He gave me advice and told me he was happy for me and what I was doing,’’ Ntilikina said. “It’s a blessing. I was exciting guarding him. Every point guard I face every day I’m excited to guard and Tony Parker a little more excited. I think I did a great job on him. but you want the win and we lost.’’