As the Knicks embarked upon this improbable season, in your most optimistic fantasies, maybe you were enough of a believer to think that with an expanded playoff field, the Knicks could contend for the play-in tournament.
As they showed that Tom Thibodeau’s teachings were being absorbed, you thought maybe, just maybe, they could earn a top-six spot and that a return to the playoffs might be in the cards.
But it was hard to imagine even 24 hours earlier that the Knicks could be in the position in which they found themselves Sunday afternoon.
Deservedly on national television, they took the floor at Madison Square Garden in control of their own destiny and delivered. Their 96-92 win over the Celtics secured the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The Knicks (41-31) — who won 16 of their final 20 games — will host the Hawks, against whom they went 3-0 this season, either Saturday or Sunday after the play-in tournament is held this week.
The Knicks, who had a 21-point third-quarter lead cut to one late in the fourth quarter, overcame some early struggles against a no-name Boston roster and reached a goal that those in their own locker room might not have believed was possible.
"I didn’t know, to be honest with you," Thibodeau said before the game. "But I felt if we did the right things, we would have a chance to be a decent team and this team continues to improve and grow, so it’s not surprising when you’re around them every day and you see the commitment that they’ve made, it doesn’t surprise me."
"It feels amazing, especially doing it with a group of guys who were here last year through some tough times," said RJ Barrett, who led the Knicks with 22 points, two more than Julius Randle. "We were able to turn the program around and we have a bunch of new pieces. That’s really what it is, how we worked hard and nobody really gave us a shot, but we’re here."
The Celtics — locked into the seventh spot and facing a play-in game Tuesday — sat out the top seven players in their rotation (counting Jaylen Brown, who is out for the season after undergoing wrist surgery).
But it’s hard to argue that the Knicks had anything handed to them after the 72-game grind through an unpredictable regular season. So if the path got slightly easier on the final day, so be it.
The Knicks trailed 24-23 after one quarter, but a 19-4 run to finish the half provided a 54-39 lead that they expanded to 75-54.
After a 15-0 run got the Celtics within 91-89, Randle drove the left side of the lane with 2:37 remaining for the Knicks’ first points since Taj Gibson’s layup gave them a 91-74 lead at the 7:38 mark. Reggie Bullock’s 16-footer made it 95-92 with 1:54 to play.
Nerlens Noel blocked a pair of layups and Randle had a chance to put the game away when he was fouled with 12.3 seconds left. He missed the first free throw but gave the Knicks a four-point lead with the second.
"Hey, look, the bottom line is getting a win," Thibodeau said of playing a shorthanded Celtics team. "We talked about it before the game. If you’re in the NBA, you’re a great player. And so they pose a lot of problems. They played a terrific game, which I knew they would . . . No matter who you’re playing against, you have to play for 48 minutes."
The Knicks had enough to get by, just as they have all season. Bullock raised his arms. Randle put an arm around Thibodeau. The celebration was on.
"The season continues on, so it’s important to appreciate the effort, the work that has gone into it thus far," Thibodeau said. "But also understand the challenge continues and there’s an intensity level to the playoffs that is much different than the regular season. So we have to prepare ourselves for that as well."