Knicks avoid easier playoff path as they clinch No. 2 seed out East

NBA: Sacramento Kings at New York Knicks
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau could have rested his key guys against the Chicago Bulls in their final game of the season on Sunday and strategically fall to the No. 3 seed in the NBA Eastern Conference.

Instead, he positioned the Knicks to run through the tape, secure a 120-119 win over the Bulls in overtime and earn the No. 2 seed. So why would a lower seed be more advantageous?

Knicks strive toward the mark and confront stronger first-round challenge against Eastern Conference forces

Well, if the Knicks had fallen to the No. 3 seed, they’d have earned a run-in with the No. 6-seeded Indiana Pacers in the first round. The Pacers are led by All-Star Tyrese Haliburton and former 2019 NBA champion Pascal Siakam.

They play fast, they shoot well, and their star duo brings elements to the game that not too many others around the league do. But they don’t have quite the star power and playoff experience as a unit as the Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat do.

Knicks face daunting test against star-studded No. 7 seed contenders

Those two teams are who the Knicks will await after the Play-In tournament concludes. Whoever wins the first-round matchup between the No. 7-seeded 76ers and No. 8-seeded Heat will take on the Knicks.

Fortunately, New York will have the home-court advantage. To their dismay, they’ll be facing either a Heat team that did away with them in six games during their 2023 Eastern Conference semifinals matchup as a No. 8 seed, or a 76ers team that just got reigning NBA MVP Joel Embiid back.

The Knicks need to click on all cylinders without Julius Randle to get out of the first-round

They face all of that without All-Star Julius Randle, who was ruled out for the season with a dislocated shoulder. The Knicks have one of the best lead men in basketball this season in Jalen Brunson, and around him, many viable scoring options, but no bonafide No. 2. This may hurt them against the two powerhouse teams in the East.

Coach Thibodeau scoffed at relaxing to end the year, per Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post. But it could have punched them a ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals, as they’d be able to gauge the strength of whoever would come out on top between the No. 3-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who would’ve earned the No. 2 spot with a Knicks loss, and the 76ers or Heat.

They’ll have to hope that they can overcome the first round to energize them for a matchup against what could be the Bucks in the ECSF.

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