Knicks clinch No. 2 seed in NBA playoffs, face tougher road with 76ers-Heat play-in winner

Did the Knicks lose by winning?

It’s a question that won’t be answered for a few weeks, but theoretically Jalen Brunson’s squad made its first-round series more difficult Sunday by toppling the Bulls in OT, 120-119, and clinching the East’s No. 2 spot.

The Knicks’ reward is a first-round showdown against either Erik Spoelstra’s Heat or Joel Embiid’s Sixers, the threatening underdogs who face off in the play-in tournament this week.

If the Knicks lost to the Bulls, they would’ve dropped to third for a first-round matchup against the inexperienced Pacers.

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (R) and Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic fight for a rebound in the first half on Sunday. Jason Szenes for the NY Post
Knicks guard Jalen Brunson puts up a shot against the Bulls on Sunday. Jason Szenes for the NY Post

Unlike the Cavaliers — who clearly tanked their game Sunday and avoided any possibility of getting the second seed — Tom Thibodeau said he never thought about conceding Sunday’s finale, even after the matchup repercussions were pretty clear because of blowouts simultaneously occurring across the Eastern Conference.

The Knicks, Cavaliers and Bucks all had a chance at the 2-seed.

Only the Knicks won and Thibodeau seemed baffled that his strategy would be questioned.

“Really? I mean the object is to win,” Thibodeau said. “Put everything you have into winning. That’s the bottom line.”

The No. 8 Heat and No. 7 Sixers face off Wednesday in Philly, with the winner coming to the Garden for Game 1 over the weekend.

The good news is that the Knicks secured home-court advantage in the second round — assuming they get there — and will avoid the No. 1 Celtics until the conference finals.

New York Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo (R) dunks the ball over the Chicago Bulls defense on Sunday. Jason Szenes for the NY Post
Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo (r.) and center Isaiah Hartenstein (l.) celebrate
during Sunday’s win. Jason Szenes for the NY Post

“I think everything does matter. That’s just me personally,” Thibodeau said. “And so when we talk about, from the start of the season, we want to be our best at the end. And that’s something we strive for. Everyday.”

The Knicks’ push till the finish line secured the franchise’s first 50-win campaign since 2013.

Jalen Brunson, OG Anunoby, Donte DiVincenzo and Josh Hart all logged over 40 minutes.

Brunson iced his masterpiece season with 40 points. DiVincenzo added 25 points in 52 minutes.

The No. 4 Cavaliers, who sat Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland on Sunday in a loss to the miserable Hornets, face the No. 5 Magic in the opening round.

The reeling No. 3 Bucks lost to the Magic and get the No. 6 Pacers.

“We don’t care what they’re doing,” DiVincenzo said. “We’re focused on our locker room. Whatever they decide to do, that’s their team, their organization’s decision. Our decision was to play. Everybody played and we won the game.”

Jalen Brunson scored 40 points for the Knicks during their win against the Bulls on Sunday. Jason Szenes for the NY Post

The Bulls (39-43) were also giving it their best despite entering the game with their play-in spot locked in at No. 9.

Coach Billy Donovan used his regulars and rode veterans Nikola Vucevic (29 points, 42 minutes) and DeMar DeRozan (30 points, 44 minutes).

The final minutes of regulation were hectic.

The Knicks, trailing throughout, recovered from a eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter, even holding a lead with two minutes left.

Brunson could’ve won the game at the buzzer with an off-balance and contested jumper, but it rimmed out.

In OT, the Knicks got a boost from backup center Precious Achiuwa, who scored all four of his points in the extra period — including a big put-back dunk that gave the Knicks a four-point lead with one minute remaining.

It sent the Knicks on a path to an unknown-yet-scary opponent.

The Sixers have the league’s reigning MVP.

The Heat beat the Knicks in the second round last year.

The Knicks will face either the Heat or the 76ers in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. Jason Szenes for the NY Post

Thibodeau wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The spirit of this team is very strong,” he said.