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Knicks’ potential playoff matchups: An early look

Knicks' potential playoff matchups: An early look

The Knicks will be on national television soon when their seven-year “postseason’’ drought — and most likely playoff drought — ends in mid-May.

While the Knicks have been relegated to MSG Network during most of their stunning season, sources say Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau wouldn’t mind doing more national media to talk up his unsung group that owned the eight-best record in the NBA entering Tuesday.

Thibodeau appeared on ESPN’s “The Jump’’ Tuesday while the Knicks huddled in Denver. “Thibs’’ was on a Rocky Mountain high, touting almost each player on the roster as playing well. Unsolicited, he bragged about Knicks owner James Dolan.

“We’ve gotten great support from our owner,” Thibodeau said. “He’s given us everything we asked for.’’

Despite their 12-1 streak, the Knicks still could miss the actual playoffs and wind up in the lottery. But the odds have gotten slimmer. Their destiny no longer looks to be the new play-in event which will feature the 7-10 seeds in each conference.

The Knicks have maintained fourth place — 1½ games ahead of fifth-place Atlanta, two games ahead of Miami and three ahead of Boston entering Tuesday.

Jimmy Butler, Trae Young and Kemba Walker
Jimmy Butler, Trae Young and Kemba Walker
Getty Images (3)

If the season ended today, the Knicks would have home-court advantage in the first-round, 4-5 battle versus Atlanta. The other likeliest first-round matchups are Boston or Miami.

Some scouts believe — despite the Celtics’ playoff experience — the Knicks are better off facing Boston than Atlanta, even though the Knicks swept the Hawks in the season series 3-0.

The Knicks were swept by Miami in the regular season (0-3) and have a similar identity to Pat Riley’s defensive club. In addition, Miami knows what it takes being playoff-tested after rumbling to The Finals in the Orlando bubble last fall. Avoiding Riley, most scouts agree, is preferred.

“I don’t love the Celtics this season,’’ one talent evaluator said. “There’s clearly a chemistry issue there with the coach and his players. Marcus Smart will play hard but I don’t trust that team.’’

Knicks vs. Celtics

Boston was considered loaded for another Eastern Conference run even after losing Gordon Hayward to free agency. What happened? Injury-riddled and lacking cohesion, the Celtics stand at a pedestrian 34-31.

The old rivals have met twice — both in Boston. The Knicks destroyed the Celtics 105-75 at TD Garden on Jan. 17 before Boston pulled out a 101-99 squeaker in the rematch mostly because of a late RJ Barrett turnover.

This would be Barrett’s first playoff series — as it will be for Julius Randle. Yes, it’s a concern.

The Knicks and Celtics will play for the final time in their regular-season finale at the Garden May 16.

The Celtics have had COVID-19 issues and point guard Kemba Walker has not led them to great heights so far. On paper, the Celtics still are better with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Walker as their top three. They each have playoff résumés. But for now, Derrick Rose is playing sharper than Walker.

One talent evaluator believes starting shooting guard Reggie Bullock is the key to beating Boston or Miami as he looks to lock down Brown or Jimmy Butler. “They need a huge playoff from Bullock,’’ the talent evaluator said. “I don’t know if I trust that yet.’’

Though the Celtics barely edged the Knicks in the last meeting, it was before the Knicks went on their tear.

“They’re playing with so much more confidence since that game,’’ the talent evaluator said.

“Boston is funky,’’ another NBA scout said. “If I’m the Knicks, I’d want to play them. The playoffs will be less pace and the Knicks will be able to grind it out. They have a chance to move the needle.’’

Knicks vs. Hawks

The Knicks swept the season series, but many observers believe if superstar point guard Trae Young didn’t sprain his ankle late in the third quarter, the Hawks wouldn’t have blown their eight-point lead last month. The Knicks hung victories on Atlanta in the first two meetings, but that was before coach Nate McMillan took over for Lloyd Pierce. Randle averaged 37 points against Atlanta, with two 40-point contests.

Despite high preseason expectations, on Feb. 28, the Hawks were on the verge of imploding at 14-20 with their power forward John Collins disgruntled and nagging injuries to free-agent signees Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic hurting the flow.

Now it’s coming together. The edge for the Knicks is the Hawks, too, are playoff neophytes.

“Now you can see that even the young guys who were used to losing, they’re getting better with that, too,” said Gallinari, a former Knicks lottery pick.

Knicks vs. Heat

This would be so exciting Jeff Van Gundy may come out of coaching retirement and join Thibodeau on the sidelines as a freelancer.

The Heat have taken out the Knicks three times this season — on Feb. 7 (109-103), Feb. 9 (98-96) and March 29 (98-88). The good news is Rose missed two of the three games. The one he played was his season debut as a Knick and he didn’t have a practice under his belt.

But Thibodeau would want no part of the monster he built in Butler — or the Erik Spoelstra-Riley tandem. Thibodeau’s principles of selflessness are Riley’s principles.

Riley’s Heat have been injury-wracked and turnover-prone. Butler has played in just 48 games. So the Heat added Victor Oladipo at the trade deadline and he’s played in just four games because of knee issues.

If healthy and with All-Star big man Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro reverting to Disney bubble form, the Knicks could be in trouble. But let’s not avoid the fact the Knicks are so much more than Thibodeau’s defense. They don’t, like Miami, turn the ball over. And the Knicks’ 3-point shooting is no longer a fluke — now third in the league at 39.1 percent. Miami is ranked 25th (34.9).

About the author

Evan Lewis

With a knack for storytelling, Evan started News Brig about a year ago. Covering substantial topics under the Sports,, he helps information seep in deeper with creative writing and content management skills.

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