The Knicks became the tomato cans of Christmas — not belonging on the NBA’s grand stage with their 9-26 record and potential superstar still sidelined another two months.
They kept up the fight for a first half before the Bucks, legitimate Eastern Conference title contenders, threw a third-quarter haymaker that wobbled their legs.
“The Grinch of Greece,” Giannis Antetokounmpo, was bottled up for a half by Noah Vonleh before he unleashed third-quarter magic on the way to 30 points and 14 rebounds in the Bucks’ comfy 109-95 Garden matinee victory.
The match that kicked off the NBA’s five-game showcase card wasn’t worthy of this spotlight and the NBA probably regrets not putting the Bucks in Toronto against Kawhi Leonard’s Raptors.
The Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks were putrid offensively and shot 36.5 percent — second-worst of the season.
Antetokounmpo glided his way to the rim for 14 points in a 36-22 third quarter that sucked the Christmas spirit out of this revered building — except for those cheering on the 6-foot-11 “Grinch of Greece.”
He got the loudest roar during pregame intros, heard “MVP’’ chants when he took to the free-throw line late in the fourth and got a warm hand when he departed for good with 1:15 left, having gotten his revenge on the Knicks.
Before the game, the Garden’s legendary photographer George Kalinsky took shots of Antetokounmpo during warmups. He has seen it all — from Wilt to Kareem to Michael to LeBron in his 52 years covering Knicks opponents at the Garden.
“If a cartoonist would draw the perfect basketball player, it’s him,” Kalinksy said.
Other than cheers from many tourists for “The Greek Freak,” whom Knicks coach David Fizdale called “a physical beast,” the Garden grew eerily silent in the fourth quarter. The Knicks failed to get within 14 points, failed to make any semblance of a run.
After the Knicks’ shocking overtime win on Dec. 1 when Mario Hezonja dunked on a falling Antetokounmpo, and then stepped over him, an angry “Greek Freak’’ promised he would “punch him in the nuts next time.’’
Even if Fizdale didn’t have the gumption to send Hezonja onto the court, Antetokounmpo punched the Knicks in the groin.
“Amazing,” Antetokounmpo said of the Garden’s reaction to his performance. “Mecca of basketball. This is why New York is so special. The atmosphere is great. They didn’t just cheer their team. They cheer basketball.”
Holiday or no holiday, there is little to cheer about the NBA’s youngest squad playing for next season. There were snazzy pregame festivities with the Knicks’ three rookies — Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier and injured Mitchell Robinson, who wore a Santa cap and ankle brace — addressing the crowd.
But after intermission, the referees could have stopped the fight as third quarters continued to be the Knicks’ bugaboo.
“We have good halftime talks, we warm up,’’ Fizdale said. “I know we turned the ball over a lot in that quarter — which ends up putting so much pressure on our defense. We’re just not good enough to do that. But that’s our quarter.”
And that’s their season — one careening toward rock bottom of the NBA standings as they head out on a murderous six-game swing, losers of 10 of 11 and a Bucks’ rematch first up Thursday before five games against Western Conference teams.
Before the game, Enes Kanter showed off his new Christmas gifts from the team’s “Secret Santa’’ exchange. From Damyean Dotson, Kanter received a black sweatshirt that read “Big Turkish Delight” along with an enormous WWE championship belt.
The Knicks are far from winning any championships or any belts. As Porzingis sat in his gray suit on the bench, the Knicks No. 1 option Tim Hardaway Jr. never got on track in a 4-of-18 outing and Emmanuel Mudiay looked like the old Mudiay, shooting 5-of-14 with five turnovers.
Rookie Kevin Knox got his 21 points, but it came with three turnovers, suspect defense and 1-of-5 from the 3-point line. Flashes but not efficient enough to carry a club on his back to victory. Fizdale talked about his Knox concerns “rebounding and defense.’’