The Knicks’ standards have become so high, even their overtime victory over the Hornets on Saturday afternoon didn’t feel as exhilarating as it should have been.
Not with the playoffs around the corner and the looming possibility of facing the mighty Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo in a 6-versus-3 first-round matchup. Not with the Knicks’ point-guard situation looking queasy and confusing due to Elfrid Payton’s massive regression and Derrick Rose’s health.
The 40-win Knicks left the Garden court to a standing ovation in the middle of the afternoon from the pandemic-limited crowd of 1,981, but still in the dark on whether they will face the Bucks, Hawks or Heat in the first round. They’re also still in the dark on whether they will get the best-case scenario of the fourth seed and home-court advantage against Atlanta.
Saturday night was all about what transpired in Brew City. The Heat faced the Bucks. A Heat victory would mean the Knicks likely would be packing for a trip next weekend to Milwaukee — not the ideal scenario.
“I’ll be watching,’’ Julius Randle said after posting his sixth triple double in a 33-point, 11-assist, 13-rebound gem. “I think it’s the only game on tonight, if I’m not mistaken. So of course I’ll be watching. I watch games anyway. But obviously when it has something to do with us, I’ll be watching. So whatever happens, happens. We’ll be ready for whatever the challenge is.’’
The Knicks have one regular-season game left to this glorious 40-31 season, in which they’ve won 15 of their last 19 games. The Celtics arrive at the Garden at 1 p.m. for Fan Appreciation Day. It may be meaningless for the Knicks. It may be for home-court advantage.
Saturday, the Knicks blew the 18-point lead they built methodically in the first half and needed to dominate overtime to repel the Hornets. It was that close. Charlotte point guard point guard Devonte’ Graham, who would look good in orange and blue next season, could’ve won it in regulation with a last-second jumper.
It was good-enough Knicks win, but hardly a great one. Most troubling situation for the Knicks is the point-guard situation, with a perplexing melange of Payton-Rose-Alec Burks-Immanuel Quickley-Frank Ntilikna.
In Thursday’s win over the Spurs, after their return from an 11-day Western trip, Rose was rested. Tom Thibodeau would rather sing Karaoke at a Manhattan bar than rest a key player.
But Rose, who had tweaked his ankle in Los Angeles, sat out Thursday, and Thibodeau sat his all-time favorite player again in the final 11 minutes of Saturday’s fourth quarter and all of overtime. Thibodeau kept Rose at exactly 25 minutes — which was his minutes restriction while with the Pistons.
Thibodeau denied a minutes restriction is now in place or that he was resting Rose on the first game of a back-to-back.
The Knicks coach claimed he liked the second unit of swingman Burks running the point and Quickley at off guard, though the Knicks rookie’s 3-point shot became wayward. Even Frank Ntilikina came in over Rose and Payton in the final minute of regulation for defense.
“It was the way the game was unfolding,’’ Thibodeau said. “We started off the third quarter really well. And then we hit a lull. We found a group who could go. That group ended up going well. So we stayed with them longer. They’re fine and will be ready to go [Sunday].’’
Rose sat on the second row of the bench and didn’t budge after shooting 6-for-9 for 16 points. He also hasn’t been available to reporters since the Knicks returned from Los Angeles, where he logged 39 minutes against the Lakers on Tuesday.
“Our goal is to win,’’ Thibodeau said. “So whoever gives us the best chance to win, that’s who’s going to be on the floor. Derrick’s behind it.’’
After Sunday’s game, Thibodeau’s Knicks will have a week off — perhaps to evaluate whether Payton still deserves to be in the rotation — let alone start. Payton went scoreless for the second straight game in 12:25. Payton has scored four points in the last four games. He hasn’t posted a plus-rating in eight straight games.
Clearly, Thibodeau is losing faith. Maybe Saturday’s maneuvers were Thibodeau’s way of taking an even closer look at Burks at point guard for the playoffs. Perhaps the Knicks start Rose and have Burks as the backup point guard.
It all worked out Saturday. The Knicks lost the lead in the fourth quarter, but forced overtime, after which the Hornets melted. The Bucks and Heat won’t fold like that in the playoffs.
The regular season ends Sunday with another crowd that will be announced at the 10 percent capacity of 1,981. It will mark — God willing — the smallest Knicks crowd the Garden will see for the rest of our lives. The capacity will be bumped up to 5,700 for the playoffs.
Indeed, things are creeping back to normal life at the Garden. The Knicks City Dancers have finally returned for these past two games — though they are not yet allowed to be on the court because of COVID-19 safety protocols.
A platform in the 200-level has been erected for their performances during timeouts. They’ve been missed, but the Knicks have staged this miraculous season without their cheering troupe.
Right now, however, the Knicks don’t need their dance team — they need a stable point-guard situation and the Hawks.