Mike Vaccaro

Mike Vaccaro


Knicks not settling for No. 3 seed’s favorable playoff path captures exactly who they are

By 3 o’clock one of the mysteries was solved. That’s when the final buzzer sounded at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, exactly 462 miles away from Madison Square Garden, where the lowly Hornets had knocked off the Cavaliers, 120-110. So it was here that the Knicks, if they were so inclined, could have started to finagle things.

But the Knicks don’t finagle.

They are not a perfect basketball team. They have their flaws. There are an army of folks from Charles Barkley on down who dine out on the opinion that they aren’t as good as their record, that they’re vulnerable, that they can be had. Maybe all of that is true. We will find all of that out in due time.

But they do not finagle. They give an honest day’s work, every day. They bring their lunch pails to the Garden, they punch a clock, and they give you an max effort every time out. That’s who the Knicks are, for better or for worse. So they would battle back from an eight-point hole against the Bulls. They would agree to five minutes of time-and-a-half, and finally beat the Bulls in overtime, 120-119, wrapping up the second seed in the East.

Jalen Brunson drives against the Bulls during the Knicks’ win Sunday. Jason Szenes for the NY Post

And later, when it was asked of Tom Thibodeau if he’d given any thought to maybe taking his foot off the gas pedal, his reaction was incredulous, and pure Thibs.

First, he made a face that looked like the one you make when you see a tree fall on your house during a storm. And then he said: “The object is winning. You put everything you have into winning.”

Sunday at the Garden was a delight for old-schoolers who abhor tanking in any form, even if it’s merely to rest players at the close of a weary 82-game marathon. Billy Donovan’s Bulls were locked into the nine hole, and they have to play again in a couple of days. And yet their four best players — Alex Caruso, DeMar DeRozan, Coby White and Nikola Vucevic — all logged at least 41 minutes.

The Knicks?

The one concession was that Mitch Robinson sat the whole second half, an understandable precaution. The rest of the team played as if their very playoff lives depended on the outcome — which is the way they play for 82 games a year under this coach, with this roster. Donte DeVincenzo played 52 minutes and 31 seconds, and at game’s end looked like he might head down to West Fourth Street to keep playing some more.

It’s who this team is. And, honestly, it’s why you believe they have a puncher’s chance in the playoffs, against anyone. Look, it’s understandable why some Knicks fans might’ve signed up for the 3 seed. The options in the first round now are Philly, with Joel Embiid in the fold, or Miami, whose playoff gear is always about 40 percent more flammable than the regular season.

But it’s also worth pointing out that the Knicks lost two out of three games to the Pacers, whom they would’ve drawn if they’d fallen to the 3. And the Pacers are exactly the kind of young, athletic team that gives the Knicks fits, they are explosive (86 first-half points on the way to 157 total against the Hawks on Sunday) and their best player is their point guard, Tyrese Haliburton, capable of at least playing Jalen Brunson to a draw.

Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks clinched the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with their win Sunday. AP

The fact is, outside of Boston, which finished with 64 wins, there isn’t one matchup among the next eight teams in the East — and, yes, given what the Bulls showed Sunday, we’ll include them — that would be considered a “gimme” for anyone. And even the Celtics, in their heart of hearts, probably wouldn’t mind avoiding the Heat in the first round.

“We just play,” Thibodeau said.

They play. They grind. They could have settled for the 3. A few minutes later word filtered in that the Bucks were getting hammered in Orlando. Now the 2 was in play. Fifty wins was already in play. Elsewhere, teams did other things. Philly sat Embiid. Cleveland sat Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. Neither of these were accidents, and maybe they were smart decisions. Again: We will find all of that out in due time.

Josh Hart attempts a shot for the Knicks during their win against
the Bulls on Sunday. Jason Szenes for the NY Post

“I can’t speak for Cleveland,” Thibodeau said. “Cleveland does what they think is best for their organization and we do what we think is best for our organization.”

So the Knicks got the 2. They got their 50 wins, first time in 11 years for that. If they survive the Heat or the Sixers, they’ll get Game 7 in the second round at home, which sounds great, until you realize that the last three times the Knicks had home court (last year, Miami; 2021, Atlanta; 2013, Indiana) they never even reached Game 7.

Nothing is guaranteed, and so nothing can be taken for granted, and so that is why the Knicks credo is a simple one.

“Only worry about things that are in your control,” Brunson said.

Winning this game was in their control. Defying the pessimists surrounding them, that’s in their control. Starting next weekend, they’ll back up a regular season that exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectations. Good times at the Garden. Good times for the city game.