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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Knicks’ chance for redemption comes with shot at conference final

INDIANAPOLIS — If the Knicks snap a franchise streak that’s lasted 24 mostly ugly years on Friday night, they’ll do it by avenging their Mother’s Day horror while winning in a Pacers arena that’s been hellacious lately for the visitors.

And according to Josh Hart, there’s only one promise from the Knicks:

“Energy,” the Knicks forward said. “Last time we were in that building, we got our butts kicked. We got blown out by 32. We didn’t embody what [Tom Thibodeau] is, what this team is, what the city is. And it was embarrassing. So next is Game 6, you have to come out with energy, with physicality and just a sense of toughness.”

Josh Hart says the team needs to bring the energy to win. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

With the mighty Celtics waiting (and resting) on the other side of the bracket, the Knicks can clinch their first conference finals appearance since 2000 with a win at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

The Pacers haven’t lost at home in nearly two months, a stretch that includes 10 straight victories and a 32-point drubbing of the Knicks in Game 4 on Mother’s Day.

A 180-degree turn in Game 5 — a 30-point Knicks win Tuesday at MSG — set up Friday’s opportunity.

Advancement could be immediately chiseled — symbolically, at least — on the Mount Rushmore of an otherwise pathetic Knicks 21st century, but Thibodeau wants his players to ignore potential glory until the run is finished. 

“The important thing is not to get lost in all the hyperbole and distractions, and lock into winning the game,” the Knicks coach said. “Just focus on the task at hand, which is to win the game. So don’t get sidetracked, just lock in, and that’s the one thing I think this team has done well. 

Thibodeau says the team has to “just focus on the task at hand.” Getty Images

“Put in the necessary work that goes into winning into it, and don’t get lost. Just stay focused.”

Beyond the historical implications, there are practical reasons to wrap up the series ASAP. The Celtics, the overwhelming favorites to get to the NBA Finals, secured their ticket to the next round with their win over the Cavs on Wednesday. 

They’re getting healthy and fresh while the Knicks are still banging around with the Pacers.


Follow The Post’s coverage of the Knicks in the NBA playoffs


The conference finals will either begin Sunday or Tuesday, depending on results only halfway within the Knicks control. 

If the Nuggets-Timberwolves series avoids a Game 7 (the Nuggets were leading, 3-2, heading into their matchup Thursday night) and the Knicks beat the Pacers in Game 6, the Eastern Conference Finals will start Sunday in Boston.

If the Knicks lose Game 6 or Nuggets-Timberwolves go to Game 7, the Eastern Conference Finals start Tuesday night in Boston. 

In other words, the Knicks are either shortening Boston’s rest or getting more for themselves by winning Game 6.

More importantly, they’d avoid a do-or-die Game 7 at MSG on Sunday afternoon, which would be a tight turnaround for a team still missing key players due to injury.

“Whenever you can get rest, no matter the situation, it’s great,” said Jalen Brunson, who has been dealing with a sore foot since Game 2. “But I for sure am ready to play, ready to go. It’s going to be a great test for us.” 

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson #11 goes up for a shot. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Plus, a conference finals appearance is the clearest demonstration of progression.

The Knicks were eliminated last year in the conference semis by the Heat and have been thinking about it ever since. 

Hart said he would’ve preferred to beat the Heat this year, but the Pacers will have to do. 

“That’s always the goal that you go into every season with [to get better]. Obviously, if we were able to beat Miami in the process of that, that would have been amazing because that’s all the only thing I thought about this summer was Miami with Spo [coach Erik Spoelstra], Jimmy [Butler], Bam [Adebayo], Kyle [Lowry]. 

“Like, that’s all I thought about this whole summer. So we came in with a mindset of, ‘OK, we got close to the conference finals. But just because we got close last year doesn’t mean it’s just gonna happen. We gotta make sure we go out there and put the work in to make it happen.’ ”

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