CLEVELAND — The Knicks were believed to have reduced their magic number to clinch a playoff berth to one with Wednesday night’s gritty win over the Heat, but there remains a small mathematical chance they could wind up in the play-in tournament.
Even with another victory Friday night over the Cavaliers, the Knicks still could potentially finish in a three-way tie with the Nets and the Heat for spots 5-7 in the Eastern Conference, and wind up dropping to seventh place due to the complicated tiebreaker system.
The excitement over Wednesday’s win over the Heat also was tempered by the ankle injury suffered by All-Star forward Julius Randle, who is expected to be out for the remainder of the regular season and possibly the start of the playoffs on April 15 after the team announced he will be reevaluated in two weeks.
Barring a collapse in Randle’s absence, Friday’s road game against Donovan Mitchell and the No. 4 Cavaliers still represents the most likely first-round matchup for the Knicks,
“You go step by step,” Tom Thibodeau said after Wednesday’s win increased the Knicks’ lead over seventh-place Miami to four games with five to play. “I just think [Wednesday’s win was] important because it was the next game. We want to be playing well right now. We want to be playing our best.
“The challenges, they don’t stop. Enjoy the win, and then get ready for Cleveland. We know how good Cleveland is, so we’re going to have to be our best on the road.”
The Knicks (44-33) attempted to acquire Mitchell, a four-time All-Star who is averaging a career-high 27.6 points per game this season, from the Jazz last summer before he was dealt to the Cavaliers (48-29).
Thibodeau’s team also leads the Nets by 2 ½ games for the No. 5 seed in the East.
Josh Hart is averaging 10.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 20 games since the Knicks acquired him from Portland on Feb. 8, and Thibodeau called him “sort of a Swiss Army knife” after a 13-point, eight-board effort against the Heat.
“It’s been a seamless transition. He’s added a lot to our team,” Thibodeau said. “I think the toughness and competitiveness has been huge for us. He can guard multiple positions, obviously [is] an elite rebounder. Big loose-ball, hustle-type guy, hits timely shots, can push the ball, and you can initiate your offense with him.
“He does everything, and he just makes us function well. So when Julius went out, we had him as the backup [power forward], and he did a terrific job for us.”
Isaac Okoro (knee) is out and Jarrett Allen (groin) has been listed as doubtful for the Cavaliers game.