After leading the New York Knicks not only to their first playoff appearance in eight years, but also securing the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 96-92 win over the Boston Celtics, Julius Randle said he isn’t interested in discussing how far the Knicks have exceeded their lowly preseason expectations.
“It didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now,” said Randle after finishing with 20 rebounds, 7 assists and 7 rebounds in Sunday’s win over the Celtics. “People really didn’t believe in us at the start of the season … it’s about what we believe in the locker room.”
And, after a season in which the Knicks have repeatedly defied expectations, they feel confident they can continue to do so in the postseason. They’ll have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs against the No. 5 seed Atlanta Hawks.
But while everyone in Gotham was happy after Sunday’s game, there were plenty of anxious feelings when the Celtics — sitting virtually everyone in their rotation ahead of Tuesday’s play-in game, having already been locked into the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference — pulled to within one possession late in the fourth quarter.
The Knicks, though, eventually held on, ensuring they would finish ahead of Atlanta by virtue of sweeping the series between the two teams and earning the right to host the first two games in their first-round series beginning next weekend at Madison Square Garden.
“Hey look, the bottom line is getting a win,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, when asked if his team took its undermanned opponent lightly. “We talked about it before the game. If you’re in the NBA you’re a great player. And so they pose a lot of problems. They played a terrific game, which I knew they would. They’re a well-coached team. And no matter who you’re playing against, you have to play for 48 minutes.”
Ultimately, though, the Knicks did just enough to win and get themselves into a first-round series with the Hawks, another young team making its first appearance in the playoffs in a few seasons. And while the Knicks did sweep the three meetings between the two teams in the regular season, Thibodeau wasn’t hearing anything about the Knicks having an advantage over their playoff opponents.
“That means nothing going into the playoffs,” Thibodeau said. “So the regular season is the regular season. When you play those games there are a lot of things that go into it. There could be players out. There could be travel involved.
“We know how well they’re playing. They’ve gotten a lot better as the season has gone on. So we’re going to have to be ready. We’re going to have to play a 48-minute game.”
Sunday’s win also marked a notable occasion for the team’s top two players, Randle and RJ Barrett — both of whom are making their first trip to the playoffs.
For Randle, it’s been a long time coming, as this is his seventh NBA season and his third team.
“Extremely,” Randle said, when asked if he was ready for the playoffs. “The way I prepare from game to game I don’t think my habits are going to change. I think I do a good job of preparing myself to play on a night-to-night basis and it will be the same thing [for the playoffs].”
For Barrett, Sunday’s win was validation for an impressive sophomore season for the 6-foot-6 guard, who said he accomplished a goal he set for himself when the Knicks took him with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft.
“It feels amazing, especially doing it with a group of guys who were here last year through some tough times,” Barrett said. “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 and nobody really gave us a shot but we’re here.
“We brought Knicks fans what they want — brought them back to the playoffs. But before I got drafted, this is what I envisioned. This is what I wanted to do. I’ve always said I’m a winner. I had a feeling I’d be part of multiple teams that will get to the playoffs.”