Phoenix hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2010, and the Knicks haven’t made it since 2013. The Suns, with the second-best record in the Western Conference at 47-19, have already clinched a spot. The Knicks, clinging to the fourth slot in the East with a 37-29 mark, are on the verge.
The Knicks haven’t won an NBA title since 1973. The Suns have never won, going title-free since they came into the league as an expansion team in 1968.
“We are excited, but we’re not satisfied, we’re not settling,” second-season Suns coach Monty Williams said last week, on the night the Suns clinched a berth by defeating the Los Angeles Clippers at home in a fast-paced 109-101 victory.
“I don’t want to take anything for granted,” added star shooting guard Devin Booker. “I know how hard it is to win in this league at any level, just one game. We’ve had ups. We’ve had downs. We continue to get better and grow through it all.”
Phoenix and New York are playing Friday for the second time this season, this time at the refurbished Phoenix Suns Arena. The Knicks have already secured their first winning season in eight years.
“It’s super cool just to be on a winning team,” veteran Knicks guard Derrick Rose said this week. “We’re doing something quite unique here, playing with a sense of urgency.”
The Knicks are on a six-game western trip that could decide their immediate future. They opened with wins at Houston and Memphis, but were trounced Wednesday night at Denver. With six games to go in this COVID-shortened 72-game season, they are trying to avoid slipping below sixth place and into the newly established play-in round, which will determine the final two playoff slots in each conference.
The play-in concept was adopted last year in a different format when the playoffs were played over the course of two months in the Orlando bubble.
“Whoever came up with that needs to be fired,” said LeBron James, as his defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers his week began to slide in the West standings. “But whatever.”
Who came up with it was commissioner Adam Silver, and the 30 owners approved, giving two-thirds of the teams in the league a shot at the postseason and a reason not to tank for top-tiered draft picks. Sixteen teams will ultimately qualify for the four rounds of best-of-seven, while the other 14 will head to the lottery.
It’s a one-year experiment approved by the NBA Players Association, coming at the end of the second NBA season that has been buffeted by limited fans in the stands and huge revenue shortfalls. While James and other players including Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic have groused about the play-in format, it’s provided a team like the Golden State Warriors with their star shooter Stephen Curry a shot to play into the playoffs.
The Warriors, who won three NBA titles and were in the finals five times in a row from 2014-19, finish the season with five games in front of a modicum of fans at Chase Center in San Francisco and can control their own fate.
“I like the vibe we have now in how we’re trying to play and the intensity we’re trying to come with every night,” said Curry, whose 33-33 club is in ninth place. “We know we’re slowly getting closer and closer to the games that really matter.”
So no one is getting fired, and the new format could stick around.
“I do see this as something we would embrace going forward,” Silver said last summer before the league vote. “As you know I’ve been talking about it for a while. We saw this as an opportunity to institute a form of it. I’m not sure if this would be the exact format going forward. But this is something we’d like to see stay.”
The three-game play-in format works like this:
—The first six teams by record in each conference are in.
—Team seven hosts team eight. The winner is in.
—The loser of the seven vs. eight game hosts the winner of the game between teams nine and 10.
—The survivor of that one earns the eighth spot. The other two teams head home and into the lottery.
Right now, the Boston Celtics, at 35-31, are tied with Miami for the sixth spot in the East. If they fall to seventh, they’d host the first play-in game against Charlotte.
The Suns are happy to be avoiding all that. Only two years ago they won just 19 games with a similar core—sans guard Chris Paul, who seems to make all the difference. In the Clipper game, when L.A. pulled within a point late in the fourth quarter, Paul re-entered and knocked down 12 points in the last five minutes on an array of short jumpers, twisting and reverse layups.
“It’s no fluke,” Booker said about Paul’s contributions. “He’s a great point guard and one of the greatest leaders to play this game. It all stems from wanting to be the best. You can see he’s on the pursuit of that every single day. It’s contagious and it’s inspiring at the same time.”
The Suns have only been to the finals twice in their 53-season history, the last time in 1993 when the late Paul Westphal was the coach and Charles Barkley was the star. Chuck wasn’t enough to quell the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, who prevailed in six games.
The Suns will play their final home games at 50% capacity in their 18,422-seat arena and could be at full capacity for the playoffs. Restrictions on crowds larger than 50 in Arizona have been lifted by Gov. Doug Ducey, and baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks said Wednesday they’ll go to full capacity at adjacent Chase Field as of May 25.
The Knicks are a charter member of the NBA in 1946, but have only won the title twice, in 1970 and 1973 when Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and Walt Frazier, among others, worked to perfection the floor game coach Red Holzman implemented.
They’ve only been to the finals twice since then, the last time in 1999 when Jeff Van Gundy was the coach, Latrell Sprewell was the team’s unlikely star, and the San Antonio Spurs defeated them in five games.
Thus, there’s a lot on the line for both franchises this postseason, starting Friday night as the Knicks try to avenge a 118-110 loss to the Suns on April 26 at Madison Square Garden that snapped a nine-game New York winning streak.
“There’s a lot of fight in this team,” Knicks first-season coach Tom Thibodeau said after the loss to the Nuggets. “But there are a lot of things we can do a little bit better.”