What are the Knicks’ playoff chances against potential 1st round opponents?

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) looks to pass the ball against Philadelphia 76ers guards Kyle Lowry (7) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (9) and forward Paul Reed (44) during the third quarter at Madison Square Garden
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks are on pace to make the NBA playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons. The Knicks’ road to the NBA Finals will not be easy, though.

The Eastern Conference has caught up to the Western Conference in many respects. That includes the strength of its championship contenders, especially at the top of the standings.

The Knicks (40-27) are currently the No. 4 seed in the East. If the playoffs started today, they’d have the home-court advantage against the No. 5-seeded Orlando Magic (39-28). However, the playoff race is tight.

Aside from the NBA’s best team — the Boston Celtics — seeds No. 2 through No. 7 are separated by six games. The final playoff positioning could look much different with roughly 15 games left to play on the 2023-24 calendar.

How do the Knicks stack up against Finals contenders in the Eastern Conference?

SNY’s David Vertsberger ranked all of the Knicks’ potential first-round opponents from most ideal to most threatening. He had the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks tied as the most favorable matchups, followed by the Indiana Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Orlando Magic. From the top down, Vertsberger views the Milwaukee Bucks as the biggest threat to the Knicks, even over the Celtics who came second, followed by the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers.

Vertsberger had this to say about the Bucks:

“While a full Knicks team is much better equipped to compete with them, the star power of Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, especially in the playoffs, poses the biggest threat to a deep Knicks run,” Vertsberger noted.

The Bucks have not looked as strong as they did in previous seasons. Even with the addition of Lillard, the Bucks have had their share of ups and downs, and Lillard’s efficiency numbers are a cause for concern.

Milwaukee is looking forward to Khris Middleton’s return from injury on Sunday, but the former All-Star has only played in 43 games and has had to adjust to a tertiary role in the offense. The Knicks’ chances against the Bucks may not be as slim as believed. Especially with their formidable defensive front, New York has the chance to throw many big bodies at Giannis Antetokounmpo and structure their defense to contain his downhill attack from the top of the key.

Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum is picking up steam in the MVP race and the Celtics look stronger than ever with upgrades on both ends in Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday. The Knicks’ 0-4 season series record against the Celtics is a clear indicator that Boston may have their number.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau may have the easiest time leading the Knicks past the Magic come playoff time. The Magic are young and talented but lack a truly elite scorer and the bench depth to overtake the Knicks in a seven-game series. Their 35.4 percent clip from the three-point line ranks No. 24 league-wide and could be the difference-maker in a first-round clash.

Knicks’ outlook against teams without Conference Finals experience

The Knicks ought to feel good about their chances to defeat the Cavaliers for the second year in a row as well as a Bulls team whose big three has yet to figure it out, and a Hawks team that has not reclaimed their spark from their 2021 playoff run.

The Pacers could be the one dark horse team to give the Knicks problems. The addition of Pascal Siakam gifted Tyrese Haliburton with a championship-winning pick-and-roll partner in the halfcourt. The Pacers play fast, contrary to the Knicks. Their 14-13 record since Siakam joined the team is encouraging, but things could change once the postseason stakes rise.

Should reigning NBA MVP Joel Embiid return to form this season, the Sixers will be a force to be reckoned with. The Knicks have able bodies in Isaiah Hartenstein, Precious Achiuw, Jericho Sims and hopefully Mitchell Robinson to throw at the 7-footer. Albeit, their success will be predicated on Embiid’s availability.

New York’s final 15 games will give an even clearer picture of how ready they are to do damage come April. For now, returning to full strength and gelling will be paramount to building momentum for a Finals run.

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