Knicks learn from their mistakes in series-clinching win over 76ers


PHILADELPHIA — The scene could have been a replay from 48 hours earlier, but this time it went better for the New York Knicks.

With the Knicks up by a point and for the second time in three days hoping to close out an NBA first-round playoff series, Donte DiVincenzo stepped to the free-throw line. At this moment, they knew that far more important than a game of basketball was the telephone game.

Two nights earlier with the Knicks caught up in another tight battle with the Philadelphia 76ers, Josh Hart hit only one of two free throws, extending the Knicks’ lead to three with 15 seconds to go. Anyone who’s into drama knows what happened next: The Knicks didn’t intentionally foul, even though they were supposed to do so. Tyrese Maxey tied the score with a 3-pointer from Hoboken. And the 76ers won in overtime to extend the series to Game 6.

The Knicks said after Tuesday’s final buzzer that they miscommunicated. Head coach Tom Thibodeau wanted them to foul up three, but the message was not conveyed.

That was not about to happen again.

As DiVincenzo waited for the basketball, ready to shoot two free throws that could put the Knicks up three, Knicks players scrambled to one another, reminding each one of the situation. Everyone on the floor knew the plan: If DiVincenzo sank both freebies, they would intentionally foul.

This time, that’s exactly what they did.

DiVincenzo nailed them both. Miles “Deuce” McBride, the same person who failed to intentionally foul Tuesday, swiped at Maxey in the backcourt, long before he could toss up a prayer of a shot. The Knicks and Sixers traded off free throws. And it helped New York close out a 118-115 win and, more importantly, the series 4-2.


OG Anunoby celebrates a 3-pointer during Game 6 on Thursday against the 76ers. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

“Sometimes when something like that happens, it crystalizes the thinking for everybody,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “And we’re not gonna be perfect. We’re gonna make mistakes along the way. And I think you see that here.”

The Knicks will face the Indiana Pacers, which just polished off a six-game victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, in the second round of the playoffs. Game 1 is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. (ET) Monday.

New York will make mistakes in that series, too. Just like against Philly, it will have to learn from them.

Part of the reason the Knicks have made it this far — that they have won a playoff series for two consecutive seasons, the first time this franchise has accomplished that feat in 24 years — is that their blunders make them better.

They botched the end of Game 5, so they made sure not to do the same in Game 6.

On Thursday, they hit big shots. They fouled when they were supposed to do it. On another possession, when the Sixers ran a play inside the final minute with the Knicks up three, Thibodeau knew Philadelphia had to go for a triple.

Instead of leaving a conventional center on the floor as he did in Game 5 when Mitchell Robinson fouled Maxey on a four-point play, he subbed in McBride for a small, switch-everything lineup that pitted OG Anunoby at center. It got a stop.

The Knicks noticed what did not work, and they adjusted.

They placed various defenders on Maxey after he went for 46 points in Game 5. In Game 6, he scored only 17 points on 18 shots. In Game 6, DiVincenzo started on him.

They revised their double-teams of Joel Embiid. By the second half of Game 6, they were defending the reigning MVP straight up, not doubling except for in emergencies. Until then, they shook up where the double-teams came from, sometimes from two passes away, other times from the baseline.

The Knicks didn’t just win Game 6 because they had been there before.

Hart hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 25.6 seconds to go and finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. Anunoby went off in the second half, disrupting passing lanes and eviscerating Embiid on a fourth-quarter dunk. He finished with 19 points and nine boards. DiVincenzo rediscovered his shot, going for 23 points and seven assists while dropping in five 3-pointers.

And then there was Jalen Brunson, who splurged for 41 points and 12 assists. He has now scored 39-plus points in four consecutive playoff games, which is the first time that has happened since 1993 when Michael Jordan did it.

“This was a really big test for us and we were able to come out on top,” Brunson said. “Going forward … it might be a different test, maybe something completely different. But this definitely helps, and obviously, you want to learn while winning, so obviously we’re still playing and we want to get better.”

This is why the Knicks expressed no interest in tanking out of the No. 2 seed at the end of the season. Others in the league, such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, feared the 76ers, who cratered to seventh place while Embiid was hurt, enough to intentionally lose on the final day of the regular season. But New York wanted this position.

Now, this group is set up well because of its second-place finish.

The Knicks pushed and shoved their way past the Sixers in Round 1. They own home-court advantage in Round 2 — and they’d have it even if the Pacers hadn’t upset the Bucks. The Knicks — yes, the New York Knicks — will be the favorites to go to their first Eastern Conference finals since 2000.

But that doesn’t mean Indiana will be a picnic.

The Pacers glide through games. They are speed demons in transition. The Tyrese Haliburton-Myles Turner pick-and-pop is among the NBA’s most dangerous actions. The Knicks will encounter loads of problems in Round 2 they haven’t seen before.

A season ago, they faced a lower seed in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and it did not go well for them, losing to the Miami Heat in six. But the Knicks tend to learn from their mistakes.

It’s a good trait to boast come playoff time.

“In the playoffs, crazy stuff happens,” Thibodeau said. “And then it’s how you respond.”

(Top photo: Bill Streicher / USA Today)





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