Sports

Knicks’ playoff madness finally arrives after brief scare

For half a heartbeat at the end, as the groan from the last buzzer of the regular season at Madison Square Garden worked its way around the arena, there was quiet: from the fans, from the players. It was almost as if everyone needed validation that what they were feeling was real.

And then came the exhale.

And then came one last joyous chorus from the 2,000 or so fans, and a round of raised arms and uplifted fists from the players. It was finished. It was done. It wasn’t easy (be honest, did you expect it would be easy?), but it was over now. The Knicks had beaten the residue of the Celtics’ roster, 96-92. They’d survived an inexplicable and nearly catastrophic 18-2 Boston run late in the game.

Now come the spoils. Now come the rewards. Now comes the remarkable result of a 41-31 season that was beyond the wildest imagination of the craziest optimist. The four seed was in the house now, officially, and that meant the next two games the Knicks play, beginning next weekend, will be back here.

“You don’t want to feel too good,” said Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks coach, who is almost as good at killing a buzz as he is at reviving hopeless, helpless basketball graveyards (Knicks fans will happily take the trade-off). “You always want more.”

The Knicks will have a week to ponder acquiring more. They not only bypassed the play-in round, but also they will get to put off their first postseason trip to the airport. The Hawks are next up, a talented team against which the Knicks went 3-0 this year, a record none of them, to a man, believes will mean a thing once the lights go on at the Garden for real next week.

RJ Barrett and the Knicks beat the Celtics on Sunday to clinch the No. 4 seed in the NBA playoffs.
RJ Barrett and the Knicks beat the Celtics on Sunday to clinch the East’s No. 4 seed in the NBA playoffs.
NBAE via Getty Images

“The record means nothing,” said Julius Randle, who one last time this regular season heard chants of “M! V! P!” whenever he took a foul shot and whenever the fans in attendance felt like cooing at him. “Game 1, home-court advantage, that’s what we’re worried about.”

It took the Knicks a while to shake off the Celtics, who sat their top seven players and fielded a team of players that, save for 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall, most fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup. Boston coach Brad Stevens probably felt right at home coaching this bunch, because it’s what he used to do so well back in the day at Butler, bring no-names into the gym and scare the hell out of you. Or worse.

Amazingly, it almost got to the “worse” part. Amazingly, after the Knicks built a 20-point lead in the third quarter, after they maintained a 91-74 lead with 7 ½ minutes left in the game, the no-name C’s pulled to within a point, late, 93-92. There was just enough in the end, and maybe it was for the best. Maybe a wake-up call walking into the postseason isn’t the worst thing in the world for this team, which had spent the season’s previous 71 games waking up the rest of the NBA.

“If you’re in the NBA, you’re a great player,” said Thibodeau, who didn’t seem surprised the Celtics played his team tough, though he very nearly burst a vein or two watching it happen.

In the end, it didn’t matter. The Knicks had done too much to allow for a sour ending, and they survived. They have spent four months generating more good will than any Knicks team going back to the previous millennium has, resuscitating a fan base that wondered if it would ever be able to enjoy a season like this again.

Now they get a week to rest, a week to recuperate, a week to study tape of the Hawks, a week to work on their shooting. And a week to savor what they’ve done before inviting a necessary amnesia in order to greet the second season with the mindset required to succeed there.

“The city is buzzing right now,” Derrick Rose said. “It’s a great feeling.”

It is buzzing, and most of it is directed at the Knicks. The baseball teams are still scuffling. The Nets belong as much to the basketball fans of Nebraska and Nevada as they do to those of New York. The Islanders have their own quiet corner of light and hope, and they expanded that with an overtime win Sunday in Pittsburgh.

But it’s the Knicks that people are talking about, in a way the Knicks haven’t been talked about, it seems, since there were laces on the basketball and a center jump after every basket. It’s a Knicks town again, for at least the next week, and for as long as they can keep this going. They survived Sunday, and advanced to next weekend, to this great playoff adventure, of which nobody knows quite what to expect.

“Nobody gave us a shot,” RJ Barrett said, “but we’re here.”

Son of a gun, they sure are. Son of a gun.

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