Later tonight, the Knicks will head to the Fiserv Forum for the second time this season to face off against the Milwaukee Bucks, who are definitive NBA Finals contenders. The Knicks, as currently constructed, are not definitive Finals contenders.
This matchup, however, has extra juice compared to the normal four against Milwaukee. It's the knockout stage of the In-Season Tournament. Win-or-go-home. The Knicks got here by gritting out a comeback win against Miami and blowing out both Washington and Charlotte. Their lone loss? A heartbreaker in Milwaukee, where the Knicks took a 103-101 lead with 1:10 to go in a ferocious comeback, only to surrender an immediate triple from Damian Lillard, get stopped, and foul Lillard on a successful layup in the span of 35 seconds (although the latter shouldn't have counted, per L2M Report). The Knicks were already scheduled to face the Bucks in consecutive games at the Garden in late December, culminating in a Christmas showdown, before heading back to Milwaukee in April. Tonight's game means the Knicks will play the Bucks five times in the regular season. The last time the Knicks faced a team five times in the regular season? The Miami Heat in 2000-01.
But, even with the added challenge of facing a juggernaut an extra time, it doesn't stop there. If the Knicks win tonight, they'll go to Las Vegas and play Indiana, which isn't too egregious since the teams are due to only play thrice this year. If the Knicks lose, they're again getting. hefty challenge on Friday by going to Boston to face the Celtics for the third time this year in just 21 games, with meetings in February and April still to come. Thus, the Knicks could have ten games against the Bucks and Celtics this season out of their 82, at least two more than all but one (Indiana) playoff contender in the NBA.
Why does this matter? Although there are over 60 games to go and 4.5 months of basketball left, these games could be the decider in terms of playoff seeding. In this writer's view, the Knicks will be jockeying for the fourth seed at the very best, with Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia being the top three. The Knicks will be battling with teams like the upstart Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and maybe even teams like the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets for not only home-court advantage, but a top-six seed altogether, There's a chance that the Knicks lose out on a top-four or top-six seed by 1-2 games, which would immediately draw eyes towards their heightened strength of schedule.
For example, here's the two-game schedule for the 3-1 East teams in the mini-IST break:
Knicks: @ MIL, @ BOS/vs IND
Nets: @ ATL, vs WAS
Cavs: vs ORL, @ MIA
Heat: @ TOR, vs CLE
Magic: @ CLE, vs DET
While none are egregious, it's some prize to the Knicks to have these games count towards the regular season while you jockey for positioning with other teams and they'll have easier schedules.
Not to mention, the Knicks' potential travel schedule. If the Knicks go the distance in the IST, it'll look like this:
12/7, 12/9: Las Vegas
12/11: New York (vs Toronto)
12/16, 12/18: Los Angeles
Might I remind you that the Knicks have not only a hard SOS this month, but play almost every game on the road? Thank you, Adam Silver!
So you might be asking, why the hell would the Knicks even want to be here? Well, simply, they're competitors. Adam Silver's great gamble was to see if he could create a playoff atmosphere in the middle of November and early December. His gamble worked, just listen at how Indiana sounded last night. The In-Season Tournament was a success for the NBA. The players are motivated, the fans are hyped, and that's all with just bragging rights and money for the players/coaches.
By virtue of making it here, the Knicks' players and coaches (just Thibs or all assistants on the bench, I don't know) have earned a $50,000 paycheck. By winning tonight? $100,000. Winning Thursday? $250,000. The whole shebang? A cool half-mil. While this doesn't mean much to the Julius Randle's, RJ Barrett's, and Jalen Brunson's of the world. Here's some guys it matters to:
Immanuel Quickley: $4.17m salary
Quentin Grimes: $2.39m salary
Deuce McBride: $1.84m salary
All three could (or will) play a role in how far the Knicks advance and their rookie-scale deals could benefit, not to mention the bench mob that makes relative chump change compared to the vets:
Da'Quan Jeffries, Dylan Windler, Ryan Arcidiacono: $2m
Jericho Sims: $1.9m
Although the two-way guys only get half of the winnings, $250k would go a long way for Charlie Brown Jr, Jaylen Martin, and Obi's lil bro, Jacob, who all make under $600k.
The motivation for the stars seem to be a free trip to Vegas + putting more money in their pockets and helping their less fortunate teammates out, which is a noble cause and motivation for a team as cohesive as this. Bragging rights are also a motivation, but it won't matter much if the Knicks got knocked out in May by a team they beat here.
Really, the NBA needs to increase reasons for fans and players to care about this. Floating a guaranteed playoff spot (Top-6 or Top-8) to the winner has to be enticing and shouldn't decrease motivation down the stretch as they still have to fight for seeding and a preferred matchup. Plus, imagine how inspired bubble teams like Toronto, Atlanta, and Houston would be if they could skip the late-season drama? You'd make it truly something everyone in the landscape wants to win, regardless of potential setbacks.