The Knicks had done their job, convincingly running up the score on the Charlotte Hornets for a 115-91 win. They retreated to their locker room and together watched the end of the Milwaukee Bucks’ win over the Miami Heat, a game that finally decided their fate in the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament.
“When we first won, we was saying we’re going to Vegas,” Immanuel Quickley said. “Like when you say you’re going to Disney World when you win the Super Bowl.”
But it was pointed out to the team that, yes, they had made it out of group play and into the quarterfinals of the tournament, but no, they were not headed to Vegas, at least not yet.
The knockout round will be played on home courts so the Knicks, by earning the wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, will travel to Milwaukee to face the Bucks.
The Knicks were 3-1 in group play and earned the wild card by virtue of point differential — a plus-42 margin — beating out Cleveland, Orlando and the Nets. The quarterfinals or knockout round will take place Dec. 4 and 5 with the winners advancing to Las Vegas for the semifinals and finals.
“I guess it’s met its intended purpose,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “So, there’s great interest in it. And I think it’s been good.
“I just care about winning. That’s it.”
The NBA carefully mapped out the color schemes and designs for the In-Season Tournament courts and the Madison Square Garden floor was adorned with the bold orange and blue design as well as the championship trophy that New York has longed for over decades.
But, while the crowd was watching the action of the final game of the tournament schedule, one eye had to be focused on the scoreboard or smartphones — and maybe another on a calculator or computer program — to try to figure out just what the performance on the court would bring for the Knicks.
The final decision didn’t come until after they were done and the other games were completed. Quickley likened it to his freshman season at Kentucky when the team gathered at coach John Calipari’s home to watch the seeding of the NCAA Tournament.
If it was confusing, what wasn’t was that the Knicks seemed to know that they needed to pile up a one-sided win to ensure they’d be playing in the tournament.
And if the tournament was filled with chaos and colors, perhaps what mattered most is that the Knicks proved worthy by having a game that they needed to win big and they did.
The Knicks built leads of as many as 16 in the half and never trailed, taking a 53-44 halftime lead. And they looked as if they were playing for the point differential, attacking the undermanned Hornets early and often.
Randle finished with 25 points and 20 rebounds. Quickley added 23 points off the bench, and Josh Hart, after maintaining in a pregame discussion that he was struggling to find his rhythm in his role offensively, came out as if he had something to prove, finishing with a season-high 17 points.
“I try to play my game to the best of my ability,” Hart said. “I wasn’t thinking too much into that.”
As he exited the locker room after finishing his postgame interview he jokingly shouted, “Make sure you tweet that I am not a disgruntled player.” But before the game he stuck to his claims that his role offensively has kept him out of rhythm.
“I’m a rhythm player,” he said in the locker room before the Knicks took on the Charlotte Hornets. “So sometimes if I don’t touch the ball for four or five minutes running up and down the floor, just catch and shoot, I might as well be playing with a football.”
Hart was referring to the feel of the ball that sometimes seems like a foreign object when he is suddenly faced with a three-point opportunity. He actually has more shots per game — and more three-point attempts — than he did after joining the Knicks last season. His usage rate is slightly down though.
“There really hasn’t been a change,” Thibodeau said. “To be honest, his usage is up [actually down from 12.6% last year to 11.9]. He’s handling the ball more. The way he’s being used is not any different than last year. He’s pushing the ball up in transition. He hasn’t shot the three as well as he did last year. But he’s open, he can’t hesitate. He’s got to shoot it. The most important thing is to be mentally tough, to work through things. I think he’ll be there. He’s a good player.”
After the game, there was no unhappiness. Randle was asked if he was a fan of the tournament. “I am,” he said.
Specifically what he was asked. “A chance to go to Vegas,” Randle said with a smile.