By Lenn Robbins
We will awake Sunday morning, the last day of the NBA regular season, with reason to rejoice in the metropolitan area. For the first time since 2013, the Knicks and Nets are headed to the playoffs.
The two NY-area teams have taken polar opposite paths to the NBA’s meaningful season, and their respective expectations, are as different as the Big Apple is to L.A, the only other city with two NBA franchises.
The Knicks were hoping for improvement under new management and veteran coach Tom Thibodeau. Saturday they posted their 40th win of the season, a 118-109 triumph over the Hornets in OT in The Garden. The Knicks could finish as high as fourth although sixth is the more likely scenario.
We wouldn’t say seeding doesn’t matter but when NBA Scratch Off hits in May, seeding can wait for a day or two. The Knicks are in and Julius Randle (33 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds) will get some MVP votes.
The Nets spent a year waiting for the return of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving from injury and married that dynamic duo to rookie coach Steve Nash, whose main job was to keep the two egomaniacs happy.
That would have been enough of a challenge for most coaches but then the Nets traded all their future assets for James Harden and Nash suddenly had an unspoken ultimatum on his hands: Win it all or their might be another coach to take a run at it next season.
The Nets (47-24) had a remarkable season of their own. For only the eighth time this season, the mercenary troika of Durant, Irving and Harden played together in a 105-91 win over the Bulls. For most of the season Nash had two, even one, of his superstars healthy yet the Nets found a way.
They will enter the playoffs as the No.2 seed in the East, meaning if the Nets and 76ers advance to the conference finals, Brooklyn would have to play a Game 7 in the City of Bitter People.
Durant scored 12 points (on 4-of-17 shooting) to go along with nine rebounds and six assists. Harden, in his second game back from a hamstring injury, had five points, five rebounds, and seven assists. Irving had 22 points, two rebounds and no assists from the former point guard.
“You can’t ask for anything super-specific,” said Nash. “You just want them to feel it, and to kind of grow into it and just kind of start that process of jelling and finding cohesion and an understanding that’s been so truncated this season. So it’s good in that respect.
“But I don’t know how much you can get out of one game, but it’s better than no game. So we’re excited to see them out there together.”
Two games should do it. Right?
The Knicks have had a remarkably healthy season. Even more remarkable is how quickly Tibs instilled a professional work ethic. The Knicks have to beat the Celtics in The Garden Sunday and hope the Heat lose at the Bucks (highly possible) and the Hawks lose to the Rockets (virtually impossible) to get the fourth seed.
“For us the big thing is take care of home court, take care of the game that we have at hand,” said Tibs. “If we take care of the little things, the big thing will take care of itself. But I think it is important for everyone to understand the business, who’s in it, how every game impacts something. So I want them studying the league as well.”
For almost the last decade the Knicks have studied the league from home in the spring and summer, watching the playoffs unfold. This time they’ll be a part of it as will the Nets, who expect to play well into June.
Because these are the playoffs and we’ve all seen our share of astonishing outcomes, Randle said it best.
“Can’t speak for other teams, but whatever challenge or opponent there is for us, we’ll be ready for,” Randle said. “We’ll be excited. We’ll accept the challenge.”
All New Yorkers have to do is pull up chair and cheer. It’s been a long time coming.