Knicks forward Julius Randle scores after grabbing a rebound and...

Knicks forward Julius Randle scores after grabbing a rebound and draws a foul on Boston Celtics forward Sam Hauser in the first half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The game was just eight minutes old when Jayson Tatum — fresh off a 55-point performance in the All-Star Game eight days earlier and a game-winning shot Saturday — blew by Josh Hart and headed to the rim.

As Tatum went up, raising the ball high above his head and starting a tomahawk dunk, Mitchell Robinson appeared in front of him and jumped with him, cleanly smothering the dunk. That was the first sign that maybe this wouldn’t be what we’ve come to expect from the Knicks and Celtics.

The Knicks built their lead to as many as 20 points in the second quarter and then fought off every Boston rally, even if they had most of the 19,812 fans at the Garden holding their breath.

The Celtics never got closer than eight points, and the Knicks’ 109-94 victory put them in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Nets and 2 1⁄2 games behind the fourth-place Cavaliers.

The Knicks (36-27) have won six straight and eight of nine, and if

this was a test of just how far they have come, the answer is leaps and bounds from early in the season. On a night when Julius Randle (23 points) and Jalen Brunson (17 points) were not carrying them, they still managed to fight off the Celtics.

“That’s what makes us who we are,” said Immanuel Quickley, who had 23 points off the bench. “Julius can go get 45, 50 any night, [Brunson] can go get 45, 50 on any night. And then on any night I feel like I can help out a little bit with the scoring as well, too, as well as other guys.

“It’s not just any select person. That’s what makes us special. We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of things. The selflessness of this team is really starting to show with that.”

Boston was without Jaylen Brown, and with 3:46 left, Tatum was assessed a second technical foul, ending his night with 14 points. He shot 6-for-18 overall and 1-for-9 from three-point range for Boston, which missed 20 of its first 22 three-point attempts and went 9-for-42 overall.

Still, the Knicks were facing the defending Eastern Conference champions and a team that entered the game at 44-17, the best record in the NBA. So no matter what the Knicks have accomplished this season, as they readied for the game, they were facing a measuring stick.

“I think we have a team that can make some noise,” Josh Hart said. “I think it’s a team that can make a run and surprise some people. We gotta continue building, but that’s something I’m extremely excited about, something that we all talk about a little bit. We try to take it game by game, but that’s definitely in the back of our mind.

“We want to keep pushing. We don’t want to make the playoffs. We want to make a run in the playoffs. I think that’s the biggest thing and I think we have the capability to do that. We have to continue to build and continue to grow. We can’t get complacent where we are right now.” 

The Knicks don’t have a Tatum and maybe not even a Brown — but as they have for a long run now, they showed a grit and toughness, spreading up and down the roster.

Robinson had a huge impact defensively and finished with 10 points and 13 rebounds. Hart had 12 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals.

If Tom Thibodeau didn’t want to speculate about the Knicks’ place in the NBA hierarchy, it was hard to resist. But while they still may be on a tier below the elite teams, they have compiled a 26-14 record since Thibodeau pulled the trigger on lineup and rotation changes, including a 6-0 mark since acquiring Hart and adding him to the mix. In that 40-game span, the Knicks have the third-best net rating in the NBA and the best in the Eastern Conference.

But even with the season down to the final 19 games, Thibodeau doesn’t want his players to get bogged down in the standings and their place in them.

“For us, I don’t want to get lost in at different segments of the season,” he said. “I just want the focus to be on daily improvement and lock into exactly who’s in front of us. Don’t get lost in anything. There’s a long way to go here.

“We’re heading down the stretch and the intensity is going to be different heading down the stretch here. So we have to respond to that. The challenge is be ready tonight and worry about what comes next the next day. Right now, lock into tonight’s game. You start looking into all this stuff, there could be a distraction every night. So you want to build that discipline of how you prepare for each night.”

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