As the Knicks and Boston Celtics found themselves battling to the wire at TD Garden Wednesday night, they seemed evenly matched. Entering the night they were tied in the Eastern Conference playoff race, a situation that might have seemed unlikely at the start of the season — unlikely that the Celtics would be struggling to reach .500 and just as unlikely that the Knicks would be reaching those levels.
But in the final minutes the Knicks saw the same struggles that have plagued them rear up once again, seeing a lead disappear and falling, 101-99. Tight games have been a struggle. Playing playoff-quality teams has been a nightmare. And the Knicks still looked like a team not ready for prime time.
While the Knicks have positioned themselves with a good shot at getting into at least the play-in portion of the playoffs, they have also shown that they have a ways to go and with five losses in their last six games fell into eighth place at 25-27.
The common denominator for the Knicks in their recent struggles has been seeing leads slip away and it was no different this time. After building a hole in the first half as they were pounded on the glass the Knicks rallied and led 85-80 after a corner three-pointer by RJ Barrett midway through the fourth quarter. But Boston responded with nine consecutive points. The Celtics could not put the Knicks away as the Knicks combined for a steal and a Randle fast break with 1:39 left, closing the gap to 91-90. But Barrett lost his dribble and Jaylen Brown broke loose for a tough layup ahead of the pack with 1:02 remaining and a 93-90 lead.
Barrett connected again with 53 seconds left, tying the game at 93-93. Smart answered again with 35.7 seconds remaining, nailing a three of his own. Alec Burks misfired on a three and the Celtics finished the Knicks off from the line despite a pair of late three-pointers. Barrett drilled a buzzer-beating three — too little and too late, but it did put him at 6-for-6 from beyond the arc in a 29-point performance.
"Every day you're working on building winning habits," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said before facing the Celtics. "That was one of our goals at the beginning of the season just do the right things each day and understand what goes into winning, and then also to analyze and learn. So you want to learn from each game, and hopefully, you're not repeating the same mistakes over and over again. You have to learn, and also to understand where we are in the season. You're facing teams every night someone's playing for something, they're fighting for something. So the intensity gets ratcheted up now. So we have to understand that, and we have to respond well and I'm sure we will."
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 in six different seasons 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," Derrick Rose said ahead of the game. "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, but would have to participate in a play-in tournament to advance. 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 of the ninth and 10th place to try to get the eighth seed.
"Everybody's fighting for something," Barrett said before the game. "Today we're fighting for the seventh seed right now. They lost last night, so we know that they’re not trying to lose two in a row. Everybody’s fighting for something. We're fighting for something as well so we got to bring that intensity."