Knicks control their destiny in battle for No. 4 seed in East

The opportunity is there for the Knicks to punctuate their rebirth this season with home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Tom Thibodeau’s resurgent team can clinch the...

The opportunity is there for the Knicks to punctuate their rebirth this season with home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.

Tom Thibodeau’s resurgent team can clinch the coveted fourth seed in the Eastern Conference with a victory in the regular-season finale Sunday against the Celtics (who are locked into the No. 7 play-in seed) at the Garden.

On Saturday afternoon, the Knicks took care of the first of their final two games, outlasting the Charlotte Hornets, 118-109, in overtime at the Garden for their 40th win of the season. They suddenly are in control of the No. 4 position in the East after the Heat lost, 122-108, later Saturday at No. 3 Milwaukee.

The Knicks currently are tied with Atlanta at 40-31, but they control the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Hawks, who will face the NBA-worst Rockets at home on Sunday night. The Heat (39-32) are one game behind both teams entering their season finale in Detroit.

“For us we have to go step by step. We have a quick turnaround. We have to be ready for Boston,” Thibodeau said after the Knicks’ matinee win. “You can’t worry about the other teams. But it’s your business, so you’re aware of what’s going on.

Julius Randle and Tom Thibodeau celebrate after their 118-109 overtime victory over the Hornets.
AP

“For us the big thing was to take care of home court, take care of the game that we have at hand. If we’re taking care of all the little things the big things will take care of themselves. That’s the way we’ve approached it all season. We haven’t changed one bit.”

Julius Randle heard more “MVP” chants while pacing the Knicks with 33 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds for his sixth triple-double of the season. Reggie Bullock buried five 3-pointers, including a key one in overtime, and finished with 17 points. Alec Burks added 14 points and center Nerlens Noel played another strong defensive game with 11 rebounds and five of the Knicks’ seven blocked shots.

Elfrid Payton remained in the starting lineup, but played just 12 minutes. Derrick Rose scored 15 points in 25 minutes off the bench after missing Thursday’s comeback win against the Spurs with a sprained ankle. Thibodeau said Rose did not reinjure himself, but the coach went with a guard combination of Immanuel Quickley (13 points) and Burks down the stretch and in overtime, with both Rose and RJ Barrett on the bench.

“Both guys are fine,” Thibodeau said. “It was the way the game was unfolding. We started off the third quarter really well. And then we hit a lull. We found a group who could go. That group ended up going well. So we stayed with them longer. They’re fine and will be ready to go [Sunday].”

Asked if the 32-year-old Rose was on a minutes restriction Saturday, Thibodeau responded “Our goal is to win.”

The Knicks led by as many as 17 in the third quarter, but Miles Bridges (30 points) netted 16 in a 30-16 closeout run by the Hornets to slash the cushion to three. Malik Monk’s drive early in the fourth nudged Charlotte ahead, and Devonte’ Graham followed with a 3-pointer for a 93-89 turnaround lead. The Knicks went back up, 102-101 on Randle’s trey with 5:19 to go.

Noel and the Knicks’ defense held Charlotte without a field goal (0-for-5 with three turnovers) for more than six minutes until Terry Rozier’s drive forged a 104-104 tie with 37.8 seconds remaining. But early 3-pointers by Burks and Bullock sparked a 14-2 burst to open the extra session.

Afterward, both Randle and Noel said they’d be tuning in to the Heat’s game later that night in Milwaukee. They also were asked if the Knicks, winners of 15 of 19, are a team opponents should want to avoid in the playoffs.

“I can’t speak for other teams but whatever challenge or opponent is for us, we’ll be ready for, we’re excited and we’ll accept the challenge,” Randle said.

“I heard some whispers early on in the season and the middle of the season,” Noel added. “I think they know we’re definitely a gritty, hard-playing team that’s able to play on both ends of the court, especially when our defense is clicking. It can be a type of nightmare.

“I’m very confident in our abilities. No matter who the matchup is, we’ll be ready to go.”

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Peter Botte

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