The celebration may have come in their own homes, not the sort of embrace the Knicks could have held if they had won in Los Angeles Tuesday night or if they had clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2013. But if it was less raucous, it was no less appreciated.
The Knicks secured a top-six spot and avoided the play-in tournament after flying home Wednesday from Los Angeles with the night off thanks to the continuing collapse of the Boston Celtics, who lost at Cleveland. The celebration came in the form of social media posts - "Clinched" from Immanuel Quickley, then "Check it off the list. We not close to done #NYWEHERE," from Julius Randle.
It was a measure of relief for the Knicks after a heartbreaking night Tuesday. When that game was over the tension and anger were palpable, even via Zoom. The Knicks had blown a fourth-quarter lead, an overtime lead and, in the process of losing to the Lakers, also saw a drop from fourth to sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Tom Thibodeau was short with his answers, referring every query back to the simple fact that they just had to get one more rebound. Julius Randle took the blame for missing a potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation. And Derrick Rose surrounded long pauses with the only words he could find to capture the mood - expletives pocked among the answers.
But Thibodeau likes to point out that the Knicks can’t afford to look back or look ahead, and right now that might be the best advice he could offer his team. The loss dropped the Knicks into a three-way tie with Atlanta and Miami for the fourth spot in the East, but with tiebreakers the Knicks dropped into sixth place. The Hawks pushed one-half game in front of the Heat and Knicks with a win over Washington Wednesday night.
Now, with that goal of making the playoffs accomplished, there is still more to do. The Knicks must move on, put the heartbreak and even the satisfaction behind them and focus on the next task - the final three games at Madison Square Garden, one at a time starting Thursday against San Antonio.
"It’s tough, extremely tough," Rose said. "But by the end of the night, 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 in playing hard, you get lost in the game. You want the outcome to be in your favor and it sucks man, it sucks."
The loss Tuesday along with Atlanta’s win Wednesday leaves the Knicks in sixth place. The Hawks magic number to finish ahead of the Knicks is three and the magician number for the Heat is four. If the Knicks are in a tie with either Miami or Atlanta they would resort to head-to-head play as the first tiebreaker and the Knicks have swept all three meetings with the Hawks and have been swept in all three by the Heat.
The Hawks are home for their two remaining games against lottery-bound Orlando and Houston. Miami will host Philadelphia Thursday and then play at Milwaukee Saturday before finishing off in Detroit Sunday.
By clinching a playoff berth and avoiding the play-in tournament the Knicks will get at least five days off before the first round of the postseason. But the Knicks do have to keep an eye on the scoreboard now and hope for help if they want to move into the fourth place versus fifth place opening match, avoiding facing the Nets or Bucks in the first round. There is some clarity now, with the Knicks' only possible first-round opponents being the Nets, Bucks, Heat or Hawks.
"It’s tough," Randle said. "But we control our own destiny. So get rest, get back home and finish the job."
Rose admitted that the learning will come, acknowledging that the mistakes will be reviewed - including that final rebound in regulation that allowed the Lakers to send the game to over.
"We'll probably look at film," he said. "Thibs will yell at me about it. But it is what it is."
"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. The intensity of the game – 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."
NOTES & QUOTES: Reggie Bullock (sprained right ankle), Alec Burks (contused left knee), Immanuel Quickley (sprained left ankle) and Derrick Rose (sprained left ankle) are questionable for Thursday’s game against San Antonio.