The Knicks are riding their first six-game winning streak since an eight-game run in 2014, suddenly putting them in a better position to potentially avoid the play-in scenarios for the NBA playoffs.
The surge, which the Knicks will look to extend with another home game Tuesday night against the Hornets at the Garden, has vaulted them into the coveted No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks (31-27) were 1 ½ games clear of the seventh-place Heat ahead of Miami’s game Monday night against Houston — and just a half-game behind the Hawks and Celtics, who are tied for fourth.
The top six teams in each conference automatically qualify for the playoffs, with teams finishing seventh through 10th in the East and the West requiring additional games to earn the final two berths.
Qualifying has been more of a focus than seeding for Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks, a franchise that missed the playoffs altogether 14 times in the previous 18 seasons, and every year since their last appearance in 2013.
The final 14 games of the schedule still features a daunting collection of opponents for the Knicks. Only their May 2 game in Houston involves an opponent not competing for at least 10th place in either conference.
The play-in tournament will favor the teams that finish seventh and eighth, with each needing to win one additional game after the regular season ends to qualify for postseason play.
Those two teams will face each other at the home of the seventh-place club, with the winner advancing as the No. 7 playoff team. The loser will face the winner of the matchup between the teams finishing ninth and tenth for the No. 8 seed, with the 16-team playoffs slated to start May 22.
While Mavericks owner Mark Cuban railed against the play-in format last week — after pushing for it in the offseason — Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau believes there are “a lot of benefits” to the setup, which was designed to keep more teams in contention late in the season.
“I guess it depends on what perspective you’re looking at it from,” Thibodeau said last week. “I thought Mark articulated that very well. He talked about initially he voted for it, all the benefits. And we saw that I think everyone felt the same way.
“I think we have to let it play out first and then assess it again. But I think a lot of teams being involved in important games, I think that’s good for the league.”
Veterans Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson are the only players on the Knicks’ roster to appear in at least 20 playoff games in their careers, appearing in 45 and 66, respectively. Leading scorer Julius Randle has zero playoff appearances on his résumé over seven NBA seasons.
“I pick my spots, bro. Me just coming to the team, being a newcomer and just getting a feel for everyone,” Rose said recently. “Thibs, he’s going to do all the talking, so he’s making sure all the guys are aware what’s going on and give us very good details about what we have to do and preface every game. So I let him worry about that.”
Still, Thibodeau has said that the 32-year-old Rose has assumed more of a vocal leadership role during his second stint in New York. Rose and Gibson also previously played for Thibodeau in both Chicago and Minnesota.
“Whenever I feel like I have to voice my opinion or be vocal, I pick and choose when I have to do that,” Rose said. “I don’t want them to seem like I’m here to B.S. or anything like that. I just want to win. … So we’ve got to go out and make sure we take care of business, play as hard as we can and see if we can get as many wins as possible.”