The celebration came first. There hasn’t been a lot of things to celebrate for the Knicks since they last won an NBA title in 1973, so they couldn’t be blamed for a raucous reaction to earning a spot through group play into the NBA’s version of the Elite Eight in its inaugural In-Season Tournament.
They performed on the court, winning their final three games of pool play and delivering the one-sided victory over Charlotte Tuesday necessary to capture the wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference by virtue of point differential. And then they convened in the locker room to watch the end of the Milwaukee-Miami game, loudly celebrating when it was over and they knew they were in — even if they believed they were bound for Las Vegas directly, not a stopover in Milwaukee needed to get through to the semifinal round.
But once their schedule was set — a quarterfinal matchup with the Bucks in Milwaukee Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. — the Knicks could consider the accomplishment and the next task.
“I just want us to play well,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game was over. “If we’re doing the right things, good things will come from that. So, play the right way. I don’t want us getting lost in things that really aren’t important. Understand what is important, and that’s winning,”
So Thibodeau and the Knicks won’t concern themselves with the difficulties that they face and instead just enjoy another win of any kind. There are some realities they must face. Adding the Bucks to the schedule for the tournament means that the Knicks will face Milwaukee five times this season, and if they advance it might mean a fifth game against the Boston Celtics. And travel might be onerous, possibly sending them to Milwaukee, then Las Vegas, home for one game and then on the road for a five-game road trip, the first four on the West Coast.
“I don’t look at anything as a consequence,” Julius Randle said. “Winning games, playing good basketball, got a chance to compete against the best. Who wouldn’t want that opportunity?”
“That was one of the quirks that they had talked about,” Thibodeau said. “And there’s also a quirk in which you may have more road games than home games. So there’s a couple things. And I think eventually that will all get ironed out. But they talked about that initially.
“The thing is, whatever your circumstances are, you make the best of them. They tell us we have to play this team five times, we play them five times. And be ready, whatever it is. If they say it, it’s eight times. Whatever the schedule is. Sometimes it’s in your favor, sometimes it’s not. Just be ready to play. That’s where we want the focus to be. Don’t change your strategy for how you prepare. Get ready for every game and then analyze what happened and then move on to the next one. You can’t feel too good about your wins because they keep coming.”
The oddity of this schedule is that the Knicks have more work to do before they go to Milwaukee. There's a back-to-back set Thursday and Friday, home against Detroit and then on the road in Toronto. As their coach would instruct them, they are focused on the immediate game in front of them, not about whether a banner will go up in the rafters at Madison Square Garden for the In-Season Tournament if they somehow get through it.
“Just take it a game at a time,” Randle said. “We have Detroit, then Toronto, then worry about it. Just take it a game at a time.”