Bring on Hotlanta!
The Knicks finished up their riveting regular season Sunday at the Garden on Fan Appreciation Day and will open the playoffs here under the famed pinwheeled ceiling next weekend for the first time since 2013.
Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks beat the Boston junior varsity, 96-92, to clinch fourth place and home-court advantage in the first round of the NBA playoffs before a pandemic-reduced crowd of 1,981.
The Knicks, who plan to host 5,700 fans for the playoffs, finish the 2020-21 campaign at 41-31 and on a three-game winning streak.
On a 15-0 late run, the Celtics scared the lights out of the suddenly ice cold Knicks by cutting the deficit to 91-89 with 2:40 left but they hung on barely. The Knicks almost blew a 21-point second-half lead as the Celtics cut it to one point after Tremont Waters intercepted a Derrick Rose pass and dashed in for a layup with 1:12 left.
In winning, the Knicks avoided the Bucks in the first round and instead will face the Hawks – a club they’ve handled three times this season that comes in lacking in playoff experience.
The azaleas are beautiful in the spring in Georgia, but the Knicks will face the Hawks in Games 1 and 2 at the Garden starting either Saturday or Sunday. The Knicks’ regular season home record wound up at 25-11.
The last time the Knicks saw Hawks star point guard Trae Young was last month when he was being helped off the Garden court after spraining his ankle after a collision with center Norvel Pelle.
Las Vegas made the Knicks 11-point favorites Sunday because the Celtics were locked into the seventh seed and didn’t play their top seven players, resting for the play-in tournament.
Jaylen Brown is already out for the season with a wrist injury but coach Brad Stevens sat All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, trade-deadline addition Evan Fournier and big men Robert Williams and Tristan Thompson.
Randle capped his first All-Star season with 20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. He made some history by finishing the season with averages of 24-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and six-plus assists.
Randle is the first Knick to do it and only five players in NBA history have accomplished that feat (Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Russell Westbrook and Nikola Jokic, who did it this season.)
The Knicks continued to light it up from 3-point range – a perceived weakness entering the season – making 13 of 27 attempts. Reggie Bullock pumped in 16 points, going 4 of 7 on 3’s. RJ Barrett, who played in all 72 games, finished with 22 points.
The Celtics started ex-Knick Luke Kornet at center and rookie Payton Pritchard at point guard but that modest lineup led after one quarter, 24-23, and were tied with the full-strength Knicks at 35 with 4:30 left in the half before the Knicks pulled away to take a 54-39 lead at intermission.
Before taking the court Sunday, Thibodeau was asked if he thought on the last day of the regular season he’d need one win to wrap up fourth place.
“I didn’t know to be honest with you,” Thibodeau said. “If we did the right thing, we would have had chance to be a decent team. This team continues to improve and grow. It’s not surprising when you’re around them every day and see the commitment they’ve made.”
They’ve surprised the rest of the NBA universe. In Atlanta, they face a squad touted during the preseason because of their free-agent additions.
The Hawks are deep and talented – with franchise cornerstone Young leading the barrage but surrounded by shooters in Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. Their frontcourt features shot-blocking extraordinaire Clint Capela and scoring power forward John Collins.
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