First there was a technical foul on RJ Barrett. Then Julius Randle went nose-to-nose with Charlotte’s Cody Zeller. Nerlens Noel and Zeller were hit with double technicals. Add in the pressure of an overtime session, the physicality and the score, and one can see the Knicks are ready for the playoffs.
Coach Tom Thibodeau does not want his team looking ahead (there still is one game left in the regular season Sunday afternoon against Boston before the focus shifts to the playoffs). But with a rough-and-tumble 118-109 throwback win over the Hornets at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, the Knicks again served notice that they are on a mission.
"Yeah, it’s felt like that for a while, honestly," said Randle, who had 33 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists, including two points and five assists to account for all 14 Knicks points in overtime. "Every game we play, we play a lot of tough games, and going on the road trip, everybody is gearing up for the playoffs, positioning and stuff like that. So every game feels like that type of intensity and environment. So I think that’s preparing us."
The win lifted the Knicks to 40-31, tied with Atlanta for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and one game ahead of Miami (39-32), which lost to Milwaukee. The Knicks again have a chance to control their own destiny. If they beat the Celtics or if Miami loses to Detroit on Sunday, the Knicks will finish fourth because they have a tiebreaker advantage over the Hawks.
While the Knicks, to a man, said they’d be watching the Miami-Milwaukee game and trying to figure out the impact on their seeding, they also expressed a belief that they might be the team others should be worried about facing in the postseason.
"I heard some whispers early on in the season and the middle of the season," said Nerlens Noel, who anchored the defense with five blocked shots, 11 rebounds and two steals. "I think they know we’re definitely a gritty, hard-playing team that’s able to play on both ends of the court. Especially when our defense is clicking, it can be a type of nightmare. I’m very confident in our abilities. No matter who the matchup is, we’ll be ready to go. We’ve got guys that do their job. When that’s the scenario, success is that much easier to reach. Selfless guys. I feel confident."
"For us, we have to go step by step," Thibodeau said. "We have a quick turnaround. We have to be ready for Boston. You can’t worry about the other teams. But it’s your business, so you’re aware of what’s going on . . . So that’s the way we’ve approached all season. We haven’t changed one bit. Be ready for Boston. Back-to-back, home game for us, play for 48 minutes and then go on to the next one after that. But I think it is important for everyone to understand the business, who’s in it and how every game impacts something."
The Knicks’ defense had a big impact on this game, as they held the Hornets to two baskets and five points in a span of more than 11 minutes late in the fourth quarter and overtime.
After trailing by 18 points in the second quarter, the Hornets took their first lead at 90-89 early in the fourth period on an emphatic uncontested dunk by Jalen McDaniels and a drive by Malik Monk. Terry Rozier’s layup with 6:45 left gave Charlotte a 101-97 edge.
Randle hit a three-pointer and
a long jumper to give the Knicks a 104-101 lead with 4:34 left, but they would not score again in regulation.
The Knicks held the Hornets without a field goal for more than six minutes until Rozier drove by Randle with 37.8 seconds left to tie the score at 104.
Then the Knicks began overtime with a 14-2 run that included three-pointers by Alec Burks and Reggie Bullock.
Derrick Rose, who sat out Thursday with a sprained left ankle, played 25 minutes and scored 15 points. Miles Bridges scored 30 points and DeVonte’ Graham added 25 points and eight assists for the Hornets.
The Knicks were almost at full strength, with only Mitchell Robinson sidelined. Thibodeau said Robinson, who has been sidelined since suffering a broken foot March 27, continues to work his way back but will not be rushed into action for the playoffs.
"He’s still in the rehab phase," Thibodeau said. "Everything has gone really well. He’s actually going to the next phase, which is doing some work on the court. But there’s a progression to it, so he still has a ways to go in terms of individual work, and then the next step after that would be three-on-three and that sort of thing. And then he’ll progress to five-on-five and then practice and then eventually games.
"But as I’ve said before, we’re not going to rush him along. We’re going to be cautious and make sure he goes through every phase of it properly. We just don’t want to take any chances with him."