Mike D'Antoni did a Jim Mora impression when a certain topic was broached.
"Playoffs?" he said. "You're talking playoffs?"
After 112-104 win over the Atlanta Hawks last night at the Garden, the Knicks (20-25) are officially in the conversation. The win, coupled with losses by the Bucks and Nets, moved the Knicks into a virtual tie with Milwaukee (22-27) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Bucks, however, already own the season-series tiebreaker against the Knicks, so in reality the Knicks are not quite in yet. But this is the closest they've come this late in the season since March 10, 2007, when a Steve Francis buzzer-beater against the Wizards moved the Knicks into the eighth spot.
Isiah Thomas was given a contract extension the following day and the team hasn't sniffed a playoff berth since. Things were bleak as recently as late December, when a six-game losing streak had the team reeling.
The Knicks' victory was their fifth straight at home and seventh of 10 overall.
"Sure there were some dark days there and we were kind of scratching our heads thinking, we're not bad," D'Antoni said. "For whatever reason we weren't playing well. Then a couple of guys picked it up and guys kept playing."
One guy who has been a catalyst is Nate Robinson, who had 24 points off the bench and had the Garden steaming on a day when New York was buried in snow and freezing rain. Robinson had 20 in the fourth quarter alone, when the Knicks kept buried the uninspired Hawks (26-19).
The 5-9 dynamo, who will compete in his third Slam Dunk contest on Feb. 14 in Phoenix, caught an alley-oop from Chris Duhon and also nailed a three in a personal 9-0 run in the midst of an 11-2 stretch that put the game away late in the fourth. David Lee capped the run with an alley-oop from Duhon with 5:02 left to make it a 100-87 lead.
"The fourth quarter was almost all him," D'Antoni said. "He has an energy not many people have. An athleticism that's unbelievable. When it is channeled in the right direction, he is one of the better players in the league."
While it was Robinson who carried them in the fourth, David Lee got the Knicks going early in the first quarter. He had 10 of his 17 points in the first quarter and finished with 16 rebounds for his NBA-leading 34th double-double. Lee will find out today if he will be named among the reserves for the all-star game Feb. 15 in Phoenix. The Knicks have not had an all-star since Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell in 2001.
Duhon finished with 16 points and 11 assists and Al Harrington had 16 points. The Knicks bench ended their streak of 50-plus point collaborations, though they did outscore the Hawks bench 45-20.
Joe Johnson, one of the anticipated big names on the 2010 list of free agents, had a forgettable game at the Garden, with just 15 points and 5 of 15 from the floor. Jared Jeffries and Wilson Chandler combined for that cause.
The Knicks trailed by eight at the half but come out in the third quarter with a greater commitment to defense. Lee scored on a put-back with 6:42 left in the third to spark a 17-5 run that put the Knicks ahead for good. Quentin Richardson's three-pointer with 6:08 left in the third made it 66-65 and the Knicks never trailed again.