As they prepared for Wednesday night’s game at TD Garden against the Boston Celtics, the Knicks found themselves in what might have seemed an unlikely situation a few months ago — tied with Boston for the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The pressure of a playoff chase may be unfamiliar to most of the roster, but Derrick Rose has been through it before, making the postseason six times in his career. More than that, he has felt the win-or-else pressure of the regular season.
"I’ve been in a situation where it took us winning the last game and someone losing the last game when I was in Chicago," Rose said. "And then in Minnesota it took us winning the last game to get in the playoffs against Denver and you just don’t want to be in that situation. So we’ve got to go out here and make sure we take care of business, play as hard as we can and see if we can get as many wins as possible."
Right now the Knicks reside near the bottom of the teams with secure spots, and would have to participate in a play-in tournament to advance to the postseason. The top six teams in each conference are set with their playoff spot, but the teams finishing seventh through 10th will participate in a play-in tournament. If the Knicks finish seventh or eighth they would face off against the other team in that pairing and a win would secure the seventh seed. A loss would mean facing the winner between the ninth and 10th places to try to get the eighth seed.
The Knicks (25-26) entered Wednesday only one game behind Charlotte and Miami for fifth place in the East, but also just two games ahead of ninth-place Indiana and three ahead of 10th-place Chicago. The Knicks and Celtics both held a five-game edge over Toronto to avoid slipping out of the top 10.
"We’re comfortable but not that comfortable," Rose said. "A two- or three-game slip could end up getting out of the playoffs. We’re cautious about that, what we have to do, the urgency that we have to play with every night and just try to play our game, play with a faster pace and just play together and we’ll find ourselves there. But we’re watching the standings."
The problem for the Knicks is handling the final five weeks of the schedule in which 21 of their last 22 games starting with Monday’s loss in Brooklyn pitted them against teams currently in the top 10 in each conference.
The Knicks have struggled against those teams with just one win in the last two months against a team with a .500 record or better, which was a decimated Milwaukee Bucks squad. Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, the Knicks’ top two players, have never been in a playoff game or even played on a team with a winning record. Rookie Immanuel Quickley has begun to struggle as teams have adjusted to his offensive skills.
Rose is hesitant to take too much of a leadership role, but now might be a good time for him and 12-year veteran Taj Gibson to explain their own history, much of it with Tom Thibodeau as their coach.
"I pick my spots," Rose said. "Me just coming to the team, being a newcomer and just getting a feel for everyone. Thibs, he’s going to do all the talking, so he’s making sure all the guys are aware what’s going on and give us very good details about what we have to do and preface every game. So I let him worry about that. But whenever I feel like I have to voice my opinion or be vocal, like I said, I pick and choose when I have to do that . . . I just want to win."