Can the Knicks or 76ers Finally Get Back to the East Finals? Their Health May Tell the Tale

Even in defeat, Jalen Brunson and the New York Knicks put on an entertaining show these last few days.

The question now is whether this banged-up team can really be a factor in the postseason title chase — because it’s been a while.

New York has not made the conference finals since 2000, one of the longest droughts in the NBA. The Knicks did win their first-round playoff series last year, but they’ll need to take another step before Madison Square Garden can host the kinds of massive postseason scenes that were common there a quarter-century ago.

Sunday night was a preview of what that could look like as New York battled Oklahoma City to the wire. Brunson’s layup put the Knicks up with 4.1 seconds left, only for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to answer from the corner for the Thunder, giving them a 113-112 win.

Two days earlier, Brunson scored 61 points in an overtime loss at San Antonio. He’s become a fan favorite after joining the Knicks before last season. And while New York plays good defense under coach Tom Thibodeau, watching the Knicks is by no means a slog. They scored 145 points in a win at Toronto on Wednesday night.

A performance like that makes the Knicks look like contenders, but their health is a major concern. Julius Randle (dislocated right shoulder) hasn’t played since late January. OG Anunoby (right elbow injury) hasn’t played in over two weeks — New York is 15-2 in games he’s appeared in since the Knicks acquired him from Toronto.

Mitchell Robinson returned from a 3 1/2-month absence for the game against Toronto last week, but he did not play against Oklahoma City because of a sprained left ankle.

“We always feel that if we defend and we rebound and we keep our turnovers down, no matter where we are, no matter who we have, if we do those three things it’ll put us in position to win,” Thibodeau said.

Philadelphia 76ers guard Cameron Payne (22) dribbles the ball as he keeps Toronto Raptors guard Kobi Simmons (8) at bay during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 31, 2024, in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

If the season ended now, New York would have home court advantage for the first round against an Orlando team that hasn’t won any postseason series since 2010. But then the second round would probably be against a Boston team that’s currently 11 1/2 games ahead of the rest of the conference. That matchup would be a test of Thibodeau’s ability to scheme a way to slow down one of the league’s highest-scoring teams.

Only a couple current teams have gone longer without reaching the conference finals than the Knicks. Washington hasn’t been since 1979, and Charlotte has never made it. New Orleans hasn’t advanced that far either, although that team’s entire existence in Louisiana is actually younger than the Knicks’ drought.

Another team in the East has fallen short for almost as long as New York. The Philadelphia 76ers haven’t made it to the conference finals since Allen Iverson took them to the NBA Finals in 2001.

Joel Embiid has won an MVP with Philadelphia, and the 76ers have been seeded in the top three in the East playoffs four times in the last six years, but they haven’t made it past round two.

Embiid is working his way back from knee surgery, and Philadelphia would be in the play-in tournament if the season ended now. So the 76ers face a daunting path if they’re finally going to return to the NBA’s final four.

Philadelphia has been close recently, losing in Game 7 of the second round last year, in 2021 and in 2019,

For the Knicks, last season’s elimination in Game 6 of the second round equaled the furthest they’ve advanced since that 2000 season. They’ve been up against it lately with so many players hurt, but that hasn’t affected them too much in the standings.

“We understood when we had injuries to Julius and OG and Mitchell, you’re not going to replace those guys individually, but we can do it collectively as a team,” Thibodeau said. “So that’s what we’ve done all season.”

By NOAH TRISTER AP Sports Writer


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