NEW YORK — The Knicks had earned this position all season, applying the elbow grease and Thibodeau-ing to produce results greater than their talent dictated.
They were worthy of a blessing from the Basketball Gods.
On Sunday afternoon, in the season finale, the Knicks clinched the fourth seed with what should’ve been their easiest matchup of the season.
Their opponent, the Celtics, arrived at MSG locked into the seventh seed and essentially conceded before tipoff by sitting seven (yes, SEVEN) of their top players. Still, the Knicks almost blew a 21-point third quarter advantage before Nerlens Noel swatted away two Boston shots in the final minute of the 96-92 win.
What’s a Knicks game without a little drama?
The Knicks now gets its desirable first-round matchup against the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, a team with young talent but easier than the alternatives of Miami and Milwaukee. Game 1 is either Saturday or Sunday. It’ll be the first playoff game at MSG in eight years.
Without Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, among others, Boston’s lineup Sunday resembled a G-League outfit: Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford, Luke Kornet, Robert Williams and Semi Ojeleye.
The Knicks, meanwhile, were at full strength and appeared to pull away in the second quarter, when they used a 19-4 run to take a 15-point lead at the break. But Boston (36-36) recovered on the backs of their no-name bench.
Julius Randle (20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) struggled and didn’t deliver the same energy, but still became just the sixth player in NBA history to average at least 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. The others on that list? Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Russell Westbrook and Nikola Jokic. Good company.
The Knicks (41-31) went 16-4 to end the season.