Knicks guard Jalen Brunson and center Isaiah Hartenstein watch as...

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson and center Isaiah Hartenstein watch as Brunson’s two-point shot scores to give him 31 points to tie the franchise record for most 30-point games in a single season during an NBA game against the Bulls at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

With the other 14 Eastern Conference teams all playing at the same time on Sunday afternoon, the Knicks had no way of knowing their postseason path as they took the court at Madison Square Garden. So coach Tom Thibodeau’s message was a simple one: Play this game as if it is the only game that matters.

“Everything counts,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “You know who we play for. Everything counts. It doesn’t matter the type of game it is. We want to win every single game.”

So while some teams toyed with lineups and played the seeding game rather than the opponent at hand, the Knicks and Bulls played to the final buzzer as if it were Game 7 of the NBA Finals, not the last day of the regular season, even if that meant taking it another five minutes into overtime.

There was little doubt that the Knicks were going to play it to the last second, leaving seeding questions and matchups for others to worry about. Jalen Brunson scored 40 points to lead them to their 50th win of the season, a grueling 120-119 overtime victory.

With the win over the Bulls combined with the Bucks’ loss to the Magic, the Knicks captured the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Their reward was the sort of first-round matchup that might have made other teams opt to give away the final game of the season — a meeting with the winner of Wednesday night’s play-in game between seventh-seeded Philadelphia and eighth-seeded Miami. The first-round series will begin Saturday at the Garden.

The approach to Sunday’s game would be no different from that of any of the 81 games that preceded it for the Knicks. DiVincenzo played 52 minutes and 31 seconds — the most of his career — on a day when many teams sat players or pulled them early. Brunson recorded his 11th game with at least 40 points and 36th game with at least 30, tying the franchise record held by Richie Guerin and Patrick Ewing, and added eight rebounds and seven assists. DiVincenzo scored 25 points.

It still came down to one last stop, as DeMar DeRozan (30 points) missed a short jumper with 2.8 seconds left and the Knicks leading by a point. Brunson grabbed the rebound, and after the inbound play, the clock ran out and the Knicks exhaled.

While these two engaged in a 53-minute battle, any fan at Madison Square Garden with a phone could watch the scores coming in from the other locales. Social media was filled with Knicks fans openly rooting for a loss and avoiding a first-round matchup with the 76ers or Heat. After all, the Cavaliers sat players and lost to Charlotte to finish fourth.

The Knicks insisted they didn’t watch the scoreboard — except for the one devoted to their own game.

“I think when you have competitors, it doesn’t matter,” Thibodeau said. “Competitors compete. It doesn’t matter if it’s a game, if it’s one-on-one, if it’s a shooting game, if it’s dominoes, if it’s some crazy podcast. Whatever it is, they compete. You don’t have to wind these guys up. That’s what I love about them. We’re not going to be perfect, we’ll make some mistakes. But they’re going to compete and I think that’s important.”

Said Brunson, “We were trying to be the best team we could be. We’re trying to create good habits that will turn out on the court. So obviously going forward, we’re gonna have a tough opponent, but we’re just focusing on, how can we be the best team that we can be?”

It’s hard to argue with the tactic. The Knicks earned the second seed for the first time since 2013 and did it through a season in which they were ravaged by injuries — without Mitchell Robinson (who was limited to seven minutes Sunday on the recommendation of the medical staff), Julius Randle and OG Anunoby for long stretches of the season.

“Every season you go in, you know there are a number of possibilities,” Thibodeau said. “There are a number of things you have to navigate through. And that’s what I love about this team. And it started right from the beginning. Mitch got hurt, then Julius, then OG. So we didn’t have a starting front line.

“Then we have a number of guys who just went out and played great. I think that’s important for the team. To see what Jalen did, to see what Josh Hart did, to see Isaiah [Hartenstein], Donte. It’s good.

“You have to be a team. It’s not the best individuals. It’s the best team. And so there was no quit in this team. Some nights we fell short. We learned from it and got better. The spirit of this team is very strong.”


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months