Knicks Games That Will Determine 2021 NBA Playoff Seeding
The New York Knicks can start making playoff plans.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau won't let them think that far ahead, of course, and they technically still need to run through the tape. But it would take some kind of disaster for them to fall out of the play-in tournament.
The Knicks, winners of three straight, have the same winning percentage as the seventh-seeded Charlotte Hornets and a whopping seven-game cushion on the 11th-seeded Toronto Raptors. But the 'Bockers are surely dreaming bigger, as they should since they're only two games behind the fourth-seeded Atlanta Hawks.
With less than 20 games left on the slate, these are the three that will have the biggest impact on New York's ultimate playoff position.
Monday, May 3: At Memphis Grizzlies
The Knicks have the sixth-hardest remaining schedule by opponents' winning percentage, per Tankathon.com, so the road ahead has several obstacles.
None looms larger, though, than a daunting six-game West Coast road trip to open May. The Suns close that out with consecutive contests against the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
The Knicks at least have a soft opening against the Houston Rockets, but New York's seeding could be punished by a 1-5 record. That's why this bout with the Memphis Grizzlies—the second night of the only back-to-back on this trip—looms large.
The Grizzlies aren't juggernauts like the aforementioned quartet, but they aren't pushovers like the Rockets, either. Memphis is fighting for a playoff spot, features a dynamic floor general in Ja Morant and could have cornerstone big-man Jaren Jackson Jr. back by then.
This won't be an easy game, but it's one the Knicks almost certainly need to get to make this road trip a success.
Saturday, May 15: vs. Charlotte Hornets
The loss of LaMelo Ball to a fractured wrist absolutely stings the Charlotte Hornets, but this group has retained a playoff pulse thanks in no small part to fellow newcomer, Gordon Hayward.
That might come as no surprise to the Knicks, since they reportedly pursued the former All-Star last offseason.
"After the Knicks weighed their own trade for [Russell] Westbrook, they pursued Hayward much harder, with coach Tom Thibodeau serving as lead admirer," Marc Stein reported for the New York Times. "The Knicks eventually decided to increase their offer to four years from two to compete with sign-and-trade interest from Indiana and Charlotte, but the Hornets went to a financial level for Hayward that no rival was willing to match."
The Knicks and Hornets are again in direct competition with both holding onto a .509 winning percentage. That gives this game, the second-to-last of New York's season, potentially massive implications.
This could be the difference between taking a ticket to the play-in tournament or skipping it entirely.
Sunday, May 16: vs. Boston Celtics
The fifth-seeded Boston Celtics might be three seed lines up from the Knicks, but there's only one game between them. If these clubs are fighting to the end, this campaign-closer will decide who goes where.
It's a potentially troublesome matchup for the Knicks for a few reasons.
For starters, this is the night after the previously mentioned Hornets bout, so the Knicks could be battling tired legs. Saying that, the Celtics will be on the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves the previous night, so the Knicks are at least in a better spot there than their opponent.
The bigger worry, though, might be Boston's recent mini-surge. The Celtics are 8-3 with the NBA's fourth-best net rating since the trade deadline, per NBA.com, when they added Evan Fournier and promoted Robert Williams III to the starting group.
The Knicks have a loss to the Celtics in that stretch, but if there's a positive way to spin that, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett did combine for 51 points and eight assists in that game. If those two match that production in this game, New York might get the last laugh and a last-second seed boost.