For these battle-scarred Knicks, fighting for the No. 2 seed was the only option

NEW YORK — If you have been around the arena or simply following along on your screen of choice, there was no question how the Knicks would approach their regular-season finale against Chicago on Sunday afternoon. There was no whiff of particular matchup jockeying in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. This team, under this coach, led by this MVP candidate, saw the Bulls’ red jerseys and saw another opponent standing in the way of another tally in the win column. Yes, it is a sentiment dripping with cliche, but also as much with truth, the through line of New York’s 50-win season following an overtime victory over the Bulls, which secured the No. 2 seed in next week’s playoffs despite myriad missed games due to injury from starter after starter.

“It’s been a next-man-up mentality,” said Donte DiVincenzo, the Knicks’ offseason signee who’s enjoyed a career season during his first at Madison Square Garden.

“We had a number of guys just stay up and play great,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You have to be a team. It’s not the best individuals. It’s the best team. And there was no quit in this team.”

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, notably rested their starting backcourt of Donovan Mitchell — once the apple of New York’s eye — and Darius Garland as Cleveland played host to a lowly Hornets team. Charlotte, internally, has emphasized finishing the final two weeks of this regular season strong, even after head coach Steve Clifford announced he’d step down following this season, but there were many league executives who saw Cleveland’s final defeat to their visitors as a direct duck of a certain Eastern Conference Goliath.

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) drives between Chicago Bulls guards DeMar DeRozan (11) and Dalen Terry (25) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 14, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/John Munson)

By falling to the Hornets, the Cavs secured the 4th seed and a date with the upstart Orlando Magic. That outcome also assured Cleveland would not claim the second or third seed, which, entering Sunday’s final slate of games, eventually could have positioned the Cavs against reigning MVP Joel Embiid and his Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. Any similar chicanery was clearly absent from New York’s radar. DiVincenzo played all but 30 seconds of the 53-minute affair against the Bulls, including overtime. OG Anunoby played 42 minutes, Jalen Brunson 41 and Josh Hart saw 40 ticks too. The Bulls, locked into 9th and hosting the Hawks in a play-in game on Wednesday, didn’t compete like they had nothing to play for, either.

“We just play. We just play. We play. I can’t speak to what Cleveland did. Cleveland does what’s best for their organization. We just do what’s best for our organization,” Thibodeau said.

That real identity may be New York’s greatest advantage entering the playoffs, a first-round clash with either Miami — which ousted the Knicks last April — or Philadelphia be damned. The opponent will be determined during Wednesday’s 7 p.m. battle at the Wells Fargo Center. And while this No. 2 seed will bring a dangerous opponent for the Knicks, perhaps even more dangerous than the 3-seeded Milwaukee Bucks will draw in the 6-seeded Pacers, New York wouldn’t have wanted to end their first 82 contests any other way.

“We talked about from the start of the season we wanted to be playing our best at the end. That was something we strived towards every day,” Thibodeau said.

Brunson finished Sunday with 40 points, his 11th game with 40 or more this season. He’s now one of only three players in NBA history to average 28-plus points and 6-plus assists on greater than 40% shooting from distance while playing at least 77 games in a season. The other two? Larry Bird in 1985 and Stephen Curry in 2016 — both went on to win MVP.

Brunson can, and likely will, garner his share of top-five nominations for the award, although it seems like he will trail Denver’s brilliant Nikola Jokić and Oklahoma City’s surging Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Knicks’ 6-foot-and-a-few-hairs point guard is still standing among the game’s giants and has already proven himself in the postseason, and the Knicks’ supporting cast has all followed suit — whether they played with him in college or not.

Thibodeau’s team and Leon Rose's front office have stitched together something with a central fabric of dogged determination in their famous building. New York has now earned a top-five seed in the East in three of the past four years, for the first time since 1995-98. The next measure comes with how much further the Knicks claw from here.