Why moving up in the Eastern Conference standings could be detrimental to the Knicks’ chances at a long playoff run.

As currently constituted, the Knicks (46-32) sit in the fourth slot in the Eastern Conference standings, sandwiched by the Bucks and Magic above and the Cavaliers and Pacers directly below. Despite the fact that there are only four games left, there is still a lot of variance in where the ‘Bockers could land in the standings, given the fact that the top half of the conference is so competitive.

Barring a complete slide to close out the regular season, a realistic landing spot for the Knicks is anywhere between two to six, with the Celtics being way out of reach at the top of the East and the Sixers and Heat a comfortable distance behind in the seven and eight spots and in the play-in group.

Avoiding the Two Slot

A season-long goal for the Knicks was to work their way up the standings and secure the two seed, a very impressive accomplishment considering the expectations heading into the year coupled with the perceived strength of the top portion of the East. Here we are in early April and despite some poor injury luck, the Knicks find themselves only one game back of the Milwaukee Bucks for that previously coveted two spot. Last night, New York picked up a statement win in Milwaukee and has proven there isn’t much of a gap, if any, between themselves and the Bucks. After strangely firing Adrian Griffin mid-season with a 30-13 record, the Bucks made another questionable decision by hiring Doc Rivers, who for all of his accomplishments has been a disappointment the past handful of years, lacking accountability and often coming up small as a coach in big moments. Since Doc took over, the Bucks have been subpar and most recently have lost to lottery teams in the Wizards, Grizzlies, and Raptors. Despite the immense star power of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, Milwaukee has been floundering, giving the Knicks a very good shot at the two-seed.

As crazy as it sounds though, despite the opportunity to secure that spot, it would be a disadvantage for the Knicks to have that position and have to likely face either the Heat or Sixers. The Knicks will be undermanned in the postseason, not having their second-leading scorer and franchise cornerstone, Julius Randle, who is on the shelf after undergoing shoulder surgery. Couple that with the fact that the Sixers are getting healthy and finding a groove at the right time with Joel Embiid returning earlier than many thought, this could spell disaster with the Knicks having a very real shot of being upset in the first round. The other team competing for that seven seed after the play-in tournament is the Miami Heat, the best-coached team in the NBA and a team anyone would want to avoid in the playoffs. The Heat, despite not having the most talented roster, are very tough out and were too much to handle for New York in last year’s postseason even with Randle in the fold. Avoiding the Heat or Sixers is the best-case scenario in round one, even at the cost of not getting the two seed.

Ideal Matchups

As mentioned before, other squads surrounding the Knicks in the standings are the Magic, Pacers, and Cavs. Considering the lack of success the Knicks have had this season against Orlando (1-3) coupled with the fact that they are a very good home team, the worst-case scenario would be the Knicks falling to the fifth or sixth seed and having to travel to the Kia Center to begin a first-round series. That potential matchup, despite Orlando’s youth, is very daunting and something that could end up being a brutal end to the season. The Magic, led by sophomore sensation Paolo Banchero, were not expected to be this good this season and are essentially playing with nothing to lose in the playoffs, a scary showdown for the Knicks, who are clearly under a lot more pressure to make a run in the East.

This leaves the Cavs and Pacers as the two most desirable first-round matchups. The Knicks clearly have Cleveland’s number, dating back to the first round of last season where they dispatched the young Cavs with relative ease. Cleveland is on a bit of a slide in the standings, losers of three straight, and are currently not carrying any momentum into the postseason. I would feel very good as a ‘Bockers fan, should the Knicks matchup with the Cavs in the first round of the playoffs.

As far as Indiana goes, the Knicks haven’t done very well against them either in the regular season, however, I do think that having OG Anunoby back and on the court will be huge, as there is someone who can slow down Tyrese Haliburton. Indiana is a juggernaut offensively, but they currently rank 24th in defensive rating and have a bit of pressure on them as well to perform in the postseason after acquiring Pascal Siakam and building their roster to be competitive this season. I see an opportunity for Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, and the shooters off of the bench to really be able to take advantage of the deficiencies of the Pacers’ defense.

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