Tom Thibodeau likes to preach a day at a time, focusing in on the task at hand and not looking ahead or looking back.
But for one night, it was worth looking back at the 68 games that preceded the task at hand, a final stop on a six-game road trip against the Los Angeles Lakers. And for 47 minutes, 57 seconds, the Knicks could look ahead to a future secured, a playoff berth clinched for the first time since 2013. But those last three seconds spoiled the celebration.
The Knicks surrendered a second-chance bucket with just seconds remaining in regulation and then fell in overtime, 101-99, to the Lakers at Staples Center.
With the Celtics losing to Miami earlier Tuesday, the Knicks came into this game with the chance to clinch a top-six playoff seed with a win. But this was no mere formality. A win could have secured that top-six spot, avoiding the play-in tournament. The loss actually dropped the Knicks into a three-way tie with Atlanta and Miami for the fourth spot, and they sit in sixth in a tiebreaker.
The Knicks still need just one win or one Boston loss — and they face each other in the final game of the season Sunday — to clinch a top-six seed.
"We came out of the trip 3-3," Thibodeau said. "We were one rebound away from having a win tonight. And we’ve got to learn ... This has been a long road trip, there’s been a lot of fight, but we have to understand the intensity of the end of the game. So we’ll learn from it. And it’ll be a quick turnaround going home and we’ll be ready for it."
Like so many other nights this season, it was Julius Randle leading the way with 31 points. And he provided big shots, delivering a three-point field goal with 1:10 left in overtime to push the Knicks back in front by one after they had appeared to be fading, falling behind by five. After a Derrick Rose steal gave the Knicks a chance to stretch the lead, Randle turned the ball over, called for traveling with 38.8 seconds remaining. Talen Horton-Tucker buried a three and the Knicks were down two with just 12 seconds left.
RJ Barrett, who was 2-for-13 on the night, forced up a three at the buzzer that missed badly.
"It's tough, extremely tough," Rose said. "Tomorrow when you wake up, you've got to have amnesia. But it's hard right now. I can't even lie. When you get so emotionally involved, just playing hard and you get lost in the game, you know you want the outcome to be in your favor."
The Knicks seemed ready to celebrate in regulation, building a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. Wes Matthews, who was briefly a Knick two seasons ago, cut the deficit to two with a corner three with 2:34 remaining and Andre Drummond scored inside to tie the score at 89-89 with 1:56 left. Rose converted a short floater in the lane with 1:37 left to push the Knicks in front again. A turnover gave the ball back to the Knicks, but both sides went cold and when the Knicks committed a 24-second violation with 13.3 seconds left, the Lakers had one last chance.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed a corner three, but Matthews tied the score with a follow in traffic with 3.1 seconds remaining. Randle took the inbound pass up top and drove into the lane, tossing up a bank shot that misfired as time expired in regulation.
It was the missed opportunity for the rebound that Matthews converted that had Thibodeau simmering afterward.
"All we had to do was get one rebound," Thibodeau said. "The rebounding beat us tonight."
It was Rose who took the blame for the rebound and follow.
"I was coming in from the corner trying to play back side," Rose said. "By that time, he was already boxing me out. I probably should've fouled him, threw him down to the ground or something like that."
Randle focused on his missed opportunity at the end of regulation.
"We feel like we fought like hell," Randle said. "Me, I played to exhaustion. I know my guys played to exhaustion. To do what we did, last game of the road trip against a championship-caliber team, to play the way we played was great. And like I said, I put it on myself ... I feel as a leader, I’ve got to finish that game. So I’m not going to put it on nobody else. I’m going to put it on myself."
The Lakers were without LeBron James, resting his sprained right ankle for another night. Anthony Davis carried the load much of the night and he upped the lead to three with 2:23 left in overtime, limping to the bench when the Knicks called timeout. But he wouldn’t leave the game, keeping the Lakers, who needed this game for their own reasons, alive.
The Knicks got huge production from Rose, who had 27 points, and an unlikely spark from Frank Ntilikina. It was perhaps a fitting contribution after Ntilikina — the longest-tenured Knick — had endured so much disappointment since arriving as the final lottery pick of the Phil Jackson era. Ntilikina had nine points, two steals, a sensational blocked shot at the rim against Kyle Kuzma and he spent nearly the entire fourth quarter on the floor.
Ntilikina tossed a beautiful no-look touch pass to Taj Gibson with 8:48 to play and then buried a three to give the Knicks their biggest lead of the night — 10 points. But it wasn’t going to be easy, just as nothing has been this season.
In the third quarter, the Knicks fell behind 73-67 on a Kuzma three-pointer with 4:45 to play and then the Knicks clamped down, keeping the Lakers scoreless the rest of the quarter and taking a 76-73 lead into the fourth quarter.
The scoreless stretch expanded to 6:23 — an 11-0 run — before the Lakers finally got on the board again with 10:22 remaining on a Ben McLemore jumper.
Notes & quotes: The Knicks were without Alec Burks (contused left knee) and Immanuel Quickley (sprained left ankle) again.