Nothing is given. Everything is earned.
The New York Knicks earned the fourth seed and a homecourt edge in the first round of the playoffs the hard way.
An undermanned Boston Celtics team that resembled a G League squad gave the Knicks’ a big scare. But Nerlens Noel came up with two big defensive gems down the stretch to save the Knicks and lift them to a 96-92 win Sunday at The Garden.
The Celtics made a furious 15-0 run in the fourth quarter and came within one on a Tremont Waters layup, 93-92, with 2:13 left.
Julius Randle found Reggie Bullock for a short corner jumper then Noel’s rim protection came to the fore.
Noel altered a Carsen Edwards shot, then blocked a Waters layup with 37 seconds left that preserved a Knicks’ 95-92 lead.
It was enough to hand the Knicks a homecourt advantage in their return to the postseason in eight years.
The Knicks will enjoy a louder Madison Square Garden come playoff time, with New York gradually moving to full reopening by fall. The home crowd will increase from the current 10 percent to 30 percent seating capacity in the playoffs.
With the Celtics already locked as the seventh seed in the play-in tournament, they opted to rest their top players.
What was initially thought of as easy sailing for the Knicks turned into a rough ride.
The Celtics, who already lost Jaylen Brown to a season-ending wrist injury, played without their other top guns — Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, trade deadline acquisition Evan Fournier, Robert Williams, and Tristan Thompson — but their reserves were up to the challenge.
The Knicks needed 20 minutes to shake off the Celtics’ reserves in the first half. A 12-0 run to end the second quarter helped them wiggle out from a tight game and went to the break with a 15-point lead.
RJ Barrett took over in the third quarter as the Knicks increased their lead to 21 (75-54).
But a team playing with no pressure like the Celtics was always dangerous. The Knicks fell into a five-minute scoreless spell in the fourth quarter. The Celtics made a last push, cutting a 91-74 deficit to just one.
But just like they have always done throughout their turnaround season, the Knicks rose above adversity.
Barrett led New York with 22 points, 14 in a big third-quarter surge. Randle had his usual all-around game (20 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists) but shot under 30 percent from the field. Alec Burks (17 points) and Bullock (16 points) combined for nine of the Knicks’ 13 triples. Noel had only two points but was a monster on the defensive end with three steals and three blocks. He added six rebounds.
Former no. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker paced the Celtics with 18 points while Waters had 17.
The Knicks will have their hands full against a resurgent Hawks team in the first round.
New York has swept Atlanta this season, but their last meeting went into overtime with Hawks star Trae Young leaving the second half with an injury.
In a typical Tom Thibodeau fashion, the architect of the Knicks’ remarkable turnaround has dismissed their 3-0 record against the Hawks.
”That means nothing going into the playoffs,” Thibodeau said. “The regular season is the regular season. When you play those games, there’s a lot of things that go into it. There could be players out. There could be travel involved. Now, you’re at a zero base. We know how well they’re playing. They’ve gotten a lot better as the season has gone on. So we’re gonna have to be ready to play a 48-minute game.”
The Hawks have been a completely different team under interim coach Nate MacMillan. Heading into their season finale, the Hawks have been 26-11 since McMillan took over from Lloyd Pierce midway in the season.
But the Knicks have seen all kinds of challenges in a season full of twists and turns. They capped their impressive regular season, winning 16 of their last 20 games to reach this far. Their 41-31 record is a huge 20-win jump from last season. It’s quite an accomplishment for a team pegged to be in the lottery instead of the playoffs.
They have surprised everyone, even their fans.
“Nobody gave us a shot. But we’re here,” Barrett said.
Nothing was given to the Knicks. They have earned everything from respect to the fourth seed in the East with their blue-collar work that resonated well with the city known for its grit and toughness.
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