Knicks clinch No. 4 seed in playoffs with victory over Celtics in season finale

The Knicks had earned this position all season, applying the elbow grease and Thibodeau-ing to produce results greater than their talent.

They were worthy, as it were, of a Blessing from the Basketball Gods.

That blessing arrived Sunday afternoon in the form of the Boston Celtics, an opponent locked into the seventh seed and conceding before tipoff by sitting seven (yes, SEVEN) of their top players. Their starting lineup of Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford, Luke Kornet, Robert Williams and Semi Ojeleye resembled a G-League outfit.

So the Knicks were able survive a very subpar performance to clinch the fourth seed and topple Boston, 96-92. It was neither pretty nor comfortable, but what’s a Knick game without a little drama?

“Hey look, the bottom line is getting a win,” coach Tom Thibodeau said.

The Knicks accomplished that goal because of two clutch blocks from Nerlens Noel in the final minute, securing that desirable first-round playoff matchup against the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks. There’s no easy series for the Knicks (41-31), not with their inexperience and comparable talent level. But Atlanta is better than the possible alternative of Milwaukee if the Knicks had lost on Sunday.

They were deservedly satisfied.

“It feels amazing, especially doing it with a group of guys who were here last year through some tough times,” said RJ Barrett, who scored 22 points in 33 minutes. “We were able to turn the program around and we have a bunch of new pieces. That’s really what it is how we worked hard after nobody really gave us a shot. But we’re here.”

Game 1 is either Saturday or Sunday. It’ll be the first playoff game at MSG in eight years, and the Knicks understand they’ll need to level up from squeaking by Boston’s “B” squad.

“The intensity is going to change, and we’ve just got to go all out,” Derrick Rose said. “We know how big (Games 1 and 2) are with them playing in our house, and we’ve got to take care of these two games and play as hard as we can, and we’ll deal with it game by game but we’ve got to take care of the first one first.”

Julius Randle will be making his playoff debut, with the attention of the opposition’s defense fixated on stopping the All-Star. He’ll have to be better than Sunday, when he acknowledged struggling after missing 12 of his 17 shots and committing four turnovers. Still, Randle produced enough to become 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. But that was Sunday’s accomplishment for Randle, along with clinching the fourth seed. He was already thinking about Atlanta.

“We appreciate it and we’ll enjoy it tonight or whatever,” he said. “But then we’ll be focused on the task at hand, the playoffs, that’s all that matters.”