The first unlikely finish line has been crossed by the New York Knicks after they clinched the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed in the regular-season finale on Sunday afternoon — ensuring home-court advantage for the first round of the NBA Playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks.
This will be the Knicks’ first trip to the postseason since 2013 to break a drought that was initially expected by many to continue at least through this season. But the team-first, blue-collar system instilled by first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau has catapulted the Knicks well ahead of schedule as Madison Square Garden will see playoff basketball once again.
As is expected with a Thibodeau-coached team, however, there wasn’t much patting on the back for defying the odds and making it this far.
“The season continues on,” Thibodeau said. “So it’s important to appreciate the effort and the work that’s gone into it thus far but to also understand that the challenge continues and there’s an intensity level to the playoffs that’s much different than the regular season so we have to prepare ourselves for that as well.
“For us, it’s a look at what we did,” he continued. “Enjoy today and prepare ourselves for tomorrow in knowing that there’s a lot of preparation that goes into a playoff game. We have to study, we have to prepare, and we have to be ready for when that ball goes up.
That’s the mindset of a team that simply won’t rest on its laurels of just getting into the postseason; and while they convinced many throughout this season that they’re for real, the Knicks are keen on cementing that fact this spring and potentially into the summer.
“We appreciate it, we enjoyed it, whatever it is, but we’re focused on the task ahead, that’s it,” star forward Julius Randle said.
“You don’t want to feel too good because you always want more,” Thibodeau added. “It’s important for us to be hungry and concentrate on exactly what’s in front of us. It’s important for everyone to put everything they have into each and every day. I think the maximum effort has to be combined with unbelievable concentration so you can get to the level you want to get to.”
All things considered, this Knicks team is rather inexperienced when it comes to playoff basketball. Randle — in his seventh season — RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, and Obi Toppin are making their postseason debuts. Nerlens Noel, who has filled in admirably as the starting center for the injured Mitchell Robinson has averaged just 13 minutes per game in two career series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. In his eighth season, Reggie Bullock has only appeared in four playoff games with a combined 28 minutes played.
It presents a whole new challenge that Thibodeau is keen on getting his players ready for.
“We’ve had some situations throughout the course of the year that sort of mimicked [postseason play, but they won’t be exactly the same in terms of playing the same opponent over and over,” Thibodeau said. “Usually, what happens in each game, the intensity goes up. You’re going to know everything they’re doing and they’re going to know everything you’re doing. Then it’s about all heart, how long you’re willing to fight. Hopefully, we built those habits over the course of the season. We can’t be building habits now, they have to be in place now.”