Knicks forward OG Anunoby looks on against the Brooklyn Nets...

Knicks forward OG Anunoby looks on against the Brooklyn Nets in the second half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Friday, April 12, 2024. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Sometimes you need a moment — a play that you can point to or a win — to find and feel the fit for a player and a team. And for OG Anunoby, all of the stifling defensive plays, the clutch corner three-pointers and the impressive cuts to the rim might not have done that as much as a simple act Friday night.

When Jalen Brunson was shoved to the floor in the closing seconds by the Nets’ Cam Thomas, it was Anunoby, not one of Brunson’s longtime Villanova pals, who made a beeline for Thomas. Anunoby wasn’t escalating the trouble, but he headed directly to Thomas to let him know that a shove of the Knicks’ MVP would not be accepted.

Even for his teammates, who have gotten to know him since his arrival in a Dec. 30 trade, this might have been a surprise. Anunoby usually shows almost no emotion.

Brooklyn Nets guard Cam Thomas (24) argues with New York...

Brooklyn Nets guard Cam Thomas (24) argues with New York Knicks forward OG Anunoby (8) after Thomas fouled guard Jalen Brunson during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, April 12, 2024, at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Knicks won 111-107. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

“Yeah, he’s known for getting overly animated,” Brunson joked. “It means a lot. It means a lot. I’ll leave it at that.”

Said Anunoby: “I just asked what that was about. I thought it was an excessive push. Just that. I don’t ever want to see a teammate be pushed. That’s it, nothing more.”

But it is more than that. As silly as it may sound, it’s that kind of moment that can create a bond within a team.

The Knicks already have had this all season, banding together to overachieve almost to a man. Brunson has emerged as an MVP candidate, but Donte DiVincenzo, Josh Hart, Isaiah Hartenstein, Miles McBride and Precious Achiuwa also have had career years.

And maybe in this moment, Anunoby joined the inner circle in a way that his 15-point third quarter on Friday or defensive wizardry couldn’t make happen.

When the Knicks make their way through the playoffs, there certainly will come a moment, as they struggle against the tough defenses of the postseason, when they wonder what it would be like if Julius Randle were available. But having accepted the reality of life without Randle, the Knicks might be able to get by, thanks to Anunoby.

It’s no accident that they are 19-3 in the games in which Anunoby has played since his arrival. The defense is better with Anunoby — and that is less a slight to Randle than the fact that Anunoby is as versatile and skilled a defender as there is in the NBA.

And offensively, as much as the Knicks need Randle, there are differences that can be a benefit. Anunoby doesn’t draw a defense in like Randle, but he also doesn’t dominate the ball. The ball moves more freely and is in the hands of Brunson more. Anunoby’s strength offensively is in finding open three-pointers and in cutting as he develops a growing chemistry with teammates.

“You build chemistry by playing with your teammates,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “They get to know you and you get to know them.

“And you want to play to each other’s strengths, and that’s a part of playing smart. He and Jalen are developing good chemistry and then we have to understand what he does well and try to play off that and take advantage of the things he does.

“And I think his movement without the ball is huge, those layups are critical, getting to the free-throw line and then the spacing that he provides. He’s a great knock-down shooter.”

The final seedings

The NBA again got its wish. The final day of the season has come down to a crazy maze of possibilities with teams having something to play for and no clear picture of the postseason matchups until all of the games are over.

There were no games on Saturday and all 30 teams are in action Sunday. All of the Eastern Conference games have a 1 p.m. start, with only Detroit and San Antonio meeting in a non-conference game.

So at about 3:30 p.m., we will know where the Knicks are seeded — it’s still possible for them to finish second, third or fourth — and whom they will face. They will have the home-court advantage in the first round no matter how things work out Sunday.

If the Knicks win and the Bucks lose, the Knicks will finish second. If the Knicks and Bucks both win, the Knicks will be third.

Even if the Knicks lose to Chicago, the only way they will drop to fourth is if the Bucks also lose but the Cavaliers win. (The Cavs would win the Central Division title over the Bucks and the Bucks would have a tiebreaker over the Knicks for third.)

“We’re just focused on winning and ending the regular season strong and trying to get 50 wins,” Josh Hart said of the chances to claim the second seed. “If that’s something that happens, perfect. But at the end of the day, we can’t control it.”

But the home court?

“That’s huge,” he said. “I heard the lights are really bright at MSG during that time. It’s big for us.”

Center pairing

Mitchell Robinson not only hit a huge pair of free throws to help the Knicks beat the Nets on Friday but played the entire fourth quarter — a step forward in his conditioning and a plus for the Knicks, who hope to pair him with Isaiah Hartenstein at center. “Mitch makes plays that no one else can just in terms of impacting shots, pick-and-roll coverage,” Tom Thibodeau said. “So I thought he was terrific. Mitch can cover a lot of ground and I thought that was huge for us.”


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