The New York Knicks (47-34) couldn’t extend their winning streak to six games, falling 113-105 to the New Orleans Pelicans (42-39) on the road on Friday at the Smoothie King Center.
The Knicks had won their previous five games on their way to clinching the no. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference standings, and they had already locked into that place no matter what happened in their last few days.
The Pelicans (no. 8 in the West), on the other hand, entered Friday still fighting to avoid the play-in, which they can still achieve after beating the Knickerbockers and tying the Los Angeles Lakers (no. 7) in the standings with just one left to play on Sunday. The Clippers and the Warriors are the other two teams still unsure of their short-term future, as both can still fall into the play-in depending on Sunday’s results.
And truth be told, the contrasting situation of both organizations showed.
New York fielded a starting five comprised of RJ Barrett (returning from illness), Immanuel Quickley (6MOY contender), Obi Toppin (four games started this season), Quentin Grimes (forgotten man), and Isaiah Hartenstein (no. 1 bench big).
New Orleans didn’t have Zion Williams but launched their strongest unit toward the Knicks from the get-go, with four of their five starters playing 34+ minutes and Jonas Valanciunas getting 25 minutes of run himself.
Looking at it from the opposite angle, New York missed Jalen Brunson (right hand), Julius Randle (left ankle), and Mitchell Robinson (plain old rest).
“I liked the effort, I didn’t like our defense,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “We were in a position all the way to the end. We didn’t do enough things to win, but we put ourselves in a position to win and fell short.”
The Knicks were led by Barrett’s 28 points on a rather unique shooting evening. Barrett became just the eighth player in the history of the L to score at least 28 points while hoisting at least nine three-point shots hitting none of them. The company is remarkable, to say the least.
“I thought we did a very good job offensively, creating open shots and we missed some really good shots,” added Thibs. Just ask RJ.
The Pels have not truly clinched the postseason yet, but the W handed them the home-court advantage over whoever ends up with the ninth and tenth seeds out West (Minnesota and Oklahoma City are the two lower-seed play-in teams).
Barrett thought Friday’s atmosphere was truly different from what awaits the Knicks in a week, when they’ll tip off their first-round series against the Cavaliers. “Definitely a different energy.”
Thibs agreed with the young man. “You’re just playing the same team over and over again (in the playoffs). The intensity goes up,” the coach said. “You see it when you play a team back-to-back, and multiply that in a seven-game series. So each game becomes more intense. And what works in one game probably won’t work the next game.”
Quickley scored 24 points, Grimes added 14, and Toppin contributed 10. Hartenstein, who started a game for the eighth time this season, finished the matchup with no points through 19 minutes, outdone by Jericho Sims’ six pops in 29 minutes off the pine.
Sims pulled down eight boards while dishing out a dime. I-Hart grabbed four rebounds, assisted a bucket, and committed one theft on the day.
“I think it has been ups and downs. Mentally I grew a lot, especially going through those downs,” said Hartenstain about his first year playing in Gotham. “So yeah, it has been an exciting year and, down the road, just going through that taught me a lot.”
The Knicks’ bench featured an amalgam of rarities. To Sims, you have to add Josh Hart (eight points, six rebounds), Deuce McBride (seven points), and Evan Fournier (eight points). All of them played at least 15 minutes, Hart leading the reserves with 33 rounds of the clock.
“There’s a format that we follow,” Thibodeau said when asked about how the team is getting ready for the postseason. “We’re following that format, collecting the data, organizing it. Putting books together.”
The coach, though, is still focused on the matchup with the Pacers on Sunday. “You have to take it step-by-step. Finish the season... try to finish the season as strong as you can. Then once you get to the playoffs you lay out your playoff format. So it’s just the next progression of what we’ve already begun.”
The Knicks will play their season finale on Sunday, at MSG, hosting the Indiana Pacers in a matinee with nothing in play. Tip-off at 1:00pm EST. Don’t miss it.