Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) drives past Boston Celtics forward...

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) drives past Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, April 11, 2024, in Boston.  Credit: AP/Steven Senne

A little more than 24 hours after the Knicks’ evisceration of a Celtics team that is supposed to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the Eastern Conference, we are still trying to make sense of it all.

Does the Knicks’ win in a game in which they led by as many as 31 points mean they actually have a chance of being competitive with Boston in a playoff matchup? Or, as Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla suggested after the game, is this just a matter of the Celtics not having that much to play for, given that they have a 13-game cushion atop the conference?

“I saw that there was only one team in the Eastern Conference that has their seed settled. And no one else does,” Mazzulla said after the game. “I saw a high level of desperation.”

The Knicks certainly are playing with a very “high level of desperation,” and the result is that they clinched home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs with their 111-107 victory over the Nets on Friday night, a game in which they came back from a 17-point deficit. More importantly, beating the Bulls on Sunday would guarantee them at least a third-place finish. Doing that would mean they could avoid playing the Celtics again until the Eastern Conference finals.

I don’t know if the win in Boston says as much about the Knicks as it says about the Celtics, who in the words of Charles Barkley on Thursday night has “half-[expletive] it” against Milwaukee and the Knicks this week.

On TNT’s halftime show, Barkley talked about how his Phoenix Suns finished the 1992-93 regular season with the NBA’s best record but “shut it down” the last two weeks of the season.

“It took us two rounds of the playoffs to get it back,” Barkley said. “ . . . I regret it to this day. Like, man, you play ’til the end of the season if you’re going to play.”

The Celtics’ shutdown stands in bold contrast with this Knicks team. There have been games in which the Knicks didn’t play well. There have been games in which they missed easy shots, couldn’t contain a certain player or just looked tired or outmanned. Not once, however, has there been a Knicks game this season in which it seemed as if they were going through the motions or didn’t want to put in the work needed to get the win.

The Celtics have the most talented starting five in the NBA. They have matured since last season and have become much more of a team. They have learned to put their personal agendas aside for the betterment of the group. On paper, they not only are better than the Knicks but could be better than every other team in the NBA.

But they aren’t tougher. Not even close. And toughness counts.

The Knicks’ toughness has been built through resiliency. It’s been built by surviving injury after injury to starters. That toughness has been built by watching Jalen Brunson play his best when the spotlight is shining the brightest.

Before scoring all 30 of his points in the final three quarters against the Nets, Brunson had scored 35, 35, 43, 45 and 39 in the previous five games. That’s an average of 37.8 points a game in a stretch in which the Knicks went 5-1. Brunson’s 39 points against the Celtics came despite playing only 30 minutes in a game in which Boston threw almost every defender at him.

Brunson’s MVP-level consistency combined with his teammate’s ability to step into different roles is the kind of thing that will give the Knicks confidence that they can play at a high level against the best of teams in the postseason.

“There’s a lot of ups and downs in a season and in a game,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “To have the ability to get through that . . . to have the toughness both mental and physical to get through things. I think if you do that, you can turn anything your way.”

Maybe even a series against a team no one thinks you can beat.


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