Knicks clinch playoff berth for first time since 2013

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·3 min read
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Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, and Tom Thibodeau treated image
Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, and Tom Thibodeau treated image

In a development that virtually no one predicted five months ago, the 2020-21 Knicks have qualified for the playoffs.

New York clinched one of the top six seeds in the Eastern Conference when the Celtics lost to the Cavaliers on Wednesday night, 102-94.

The Knicks are currently in sixth place with three games to play in the regular season.

If the Knicks finish the season in fourth place, they’ll face the Heat or the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs.

If New York finishes the year in sixth place, they’ll likely face the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.

The first round is slated to begin later next week after the NBA concludes the play-in tournament.

The play-in tournament – which features the No. 7 through No. 10 seeds in each conference – was widely considered the best possible outcome for this Knicks season.

One Las Vegas sportsbook set the Knicks over/under win total at 22.5.

Thanks to strong performances in all corners of the organization (Tom Thibodeau, Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Leon Rose’s front office), New York vastly exceeded those expectations.

It started with Thibodeau, who set a daily standard for the Knicks to adhere to early on in training camp. The work started to pay dividends early on, when New York got off to a 5-3 start.

The Knicks then lost five in a row. Unlike most versions of the Knicks, the 2020-21 club showed resiliency, winning their next three to avoid an early tailspin.

Randle established himself as a leader for the group early on. Thibodeau, a Coach of the Year candidate, often referred to Randle as the Knicks’ engine.

Thanks to strong play from Randle and Barrett – and surprising early contributions from rookie Immanuel Quickley – the Knicks hovered around .500 for much of the first half of the season.

Apr 24, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) celebrates with guard Derrick Rose (4) and New York Knicks forward Reggie Bullock (25) against the Toronto Raptors during the second half of an NBA basketball game
Apr 24, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) celebrates with guard Derrick Rose (4) and New York Knicks forward Reggie Bullock (25) against the Toronto Raptors during the second half of an NBA basketball game

The Knicks traded for Derrick Rose in early February, a move that was met with trepidation by some in the fan base. It turned out to be pivotal.

Rose established himself as a strong scorer off the bench and a veteran leader for the club. The former MVP helped New York reel off nine straight wins, the streak coming right after the Knicks had lost five of six.

This was further evidence that Thibodeau’s group, led by Randle, could handle adversity.

Thibodeau said all year long that the Knicks would "need everybody" on the roster to succeed as a group. He was right. New York relied heavily on Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson to fortify the defense when Mitchell Robinson went down with injuries.

They’ve gotten timely shooting and strong defense from Reggie Bullock, solid scoring off the bench from Alec Burks.

It’s all added up to one of the more surprising seasons in franchise history.

The Knicks will learn their first-round opponent by the end of the week.

Given Thibodeau’s reputation for detailed preparation, they should be able to compete against any of their potential opponents.

Whether they win a round or not, the franchise is already ahead of schedule. The team was viewed as one of the worst in the league coming into the season, slotted by many for the top of the 2021 NBA Draft.

Instead, they snapped an eight-year playoff drought.

Looking ahead, New York has some of the tools in place (a nucleus of young players who have won on their own, bevy of first-round picks, significant cap space) to build a contending team through trades and free agency.

Maybe under Rose, Thibodeau, and Randle, the Knicks can one day establish themselves as a top contender in the East.

But that’s a storyline for another day. Today, you can describe the Knicks in a way you haven’t been able to in some time: a playoff team.