Knicks’ Playoff Destination Comes Down to Final Game

“Beat. The. Heat.”

The chorus was brief but fervent, coming Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, as the Knicks kept rolling, seemingly inevitably, toward Miami. Yet nothing has come easily in this rushed and truncated lockout season, and the Knicks headed into the final 24 hours with their weekend plans still hazy.

With , the Knicks (35-30) held their ground as the seventh-place team in the Eastern Conference — in a virtual tie with the Philadelphia 76ers. It will take a 66th game to settle the standings and set the playoff bracket.

The Knicks hold the tiebreaker over the 76ers and thus can determine their own first-round opponent Thursday night when they visit the Charlotte Bobcats. A victory will ensure the Knicks of the seventh seed and a first-round date with the Heat. A loss, combined with a 76ers victory in Detroit, would drop the Knicks to eighth, and a matchup with the .

Knicks fans chanted their preference throughout the fourth quarter.

“The fans know what they want, know what they want to see,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Hopefully, they get to see that.”

The Knicks might not try very hard to make that happen, however. Anthony said he would probably not play Thursday night. Tyson Chandler said he would play limited minutes, if at all. Amar’e Stoudemire said he would leave it up to Coach Mike Woodson.

At this point, the Knicks contend there is little difference between playing the Heat or the Bulls. But they are certain that being ready for Game 1 trumps all other concerns. They could open the playoffs as soon as Saturday.

“I want to be smart about the situation,” Chandler said. “It’s more important for me to be fresh and being able to move around on the perimeter.” He added, “I don’t care who we face.”

Woodson said he wanted to win the finale, but he would not commit to playing his starters. He began resting them late Wednesday, a clear indication that he is already planning for the weekend.

Stoudemire was the only starter to open the fourth quarter, but the Knicks built as much as an 18-point lead. The Knicks led, 91-74, with 6 minutes 28 seconds to play when Woodson pulled Stoudemire. The Clippers then scored 14 straight points, chopping the lead to 3 with 2:43 to play, prompting Woodson to reinsert Chandler.

J. R. Smith scored 5 points down the stretch to secure the win and finished with a team-high 21. Anthony had 17 points.

With the victory, the Knicks closed their home schedule with a 22-11 record, for their best winning percentage at the Garden since the 2000-1 season (.731).

At tip-off, the Knicks were still in contention for sixth, seventh or eighth place — each slot bringing a different playoff challenger: Chicago, Miami or Indiana. The picture simplified as the night wore on.

At 9:30 p.m. — with the Knicks still in the third quarter — the Orlando Magic locked up the sixth seed by beating the Charlotte Bobcats. Forty minutes later, the 76ers — despite leaving Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young at home — finished off the Milwaukee Bucks, giving them a momentary hold on seventh place.

Woodson said he was unaware of the other results and did not adjust his rotation in reaction to them.

There was plenty at stake for the playoff-bound Clippers too, but they rested their star point guard Chris Paul, because of a mild groin strain. The Clippers (40-26) began the night tied with the Memphis Grizzlies — their first-round opponent — as the fourth and fifth seeds in the Western Conference, with the home-court edge yet to be decided.

Blake Griffin led the Clippers with 29 points. Randy Foye had 28 but missed a 3-pointer that could have tied the game and committed a costly turnover in the final 30 seconds.

With Jared Jeffries’s health still in question, Woodson moved Dan Gadzuric into the frontcourt rotation Wednesday, playing him seven minutes. It was Gadzuric’s first appearance since signing with the Knicks last Friday.

“We’ve got to at least take a look at Dan Gadzuric and just see if he can fit in a little bit,” Woodson said before the game, “because we’re going to need one more big body if we match up against Chicago or Miami, I think.”

REBOUNDS

Jared Jeffries missed his fourth straight game because of a sore right knee and is expected to sit out the finale in Charlotte. He will have played in only 6 of the final 19 regular-season games. Jeffries is expected to be available for the playoffs, although the Knicks remain unsure how much he can provide.

Delfino Gets 30, Bucks Beat Slumping Knicks

Jennings had 14 points and 11 rebounds to go with nine assists and Milwaukee built a 23-point first quarter lead only to watch it evaporate in a half-court struggle.

Milwaukee is tied with Charlotte for ninth place in the Eastern Conference, a game and a half behind Indiana for the final spot in the playoffs.

New York is stumbling toward mediocrity after losing five of the last six. The Knicks are 7-8 since trading for , who had 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting.

The Knicks never tied the game or took a lead, but had multiple chances in the fourth quarter. Leading 86-84, Delfino, who also had 11 rebounds, hit two free throws and made a 3-pointer to put Milwaukee up 91-84 with 1:43 left.

Landry Fields answered with a 3 to cut it to 91-87. Delfino and Anthony traded two free throws before Jennings hit a fadeaway with 26 seconds to play that put Milwaukee ahead 95-89.

New York never got a chance to tie it in the final seconds despite desperation 3s by Anthony and Fields that twice cut the lead to three points.

Andrew Bogut had 13 points and 12 rebounds, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute scored 19 points, including 13 for 13 from the line for a new career best, and John Salmons chipped in 22 points.

Milwaukee, which has been the lowest scoring, worst shooting team all season, seems to be coming out of its funk down the stretch and could get back Drew Gooden, Ersan Ilyasova and Michael Redd in the next week.

A game after Delfino made a career-high eight 3-pointers in a 110-95 win over , he was back at it again. After the Bucks missed the first seven shots of the fourth quarter, Delfino knocked down a 3 and Bogut hit a hook shot in the lane to give the Bucks an 82-74 lead.

Amare Stoudemire, who finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds, scored five straight, but Chauncey Billups missed a chance to tie it with a 3-pointer with 4:35 left. On the rebound, Bogut and Anthony got tangled up and drew double techincals.

Billups also made one of two free throws to cut the lead to 85-82 a minute later, but Billups fouled out with 21 points on the next possession with 2:46 left when Anthony missed a jumper and Billups banged into Jennings.

Anthony, who had his worst game of the season with a 2-for-12 effort in a loss to Detroit on Friday night, never seemed to get into a rhythm until the end.

The Knicks appear destined for the sixth or seventh spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, meaning they’ll have to face either Boston, Chicago or Miami in the first round.

They got off to a putrid start in this one, missing 11 of their first 12 shots to fall behind by double digits in the first six minutes.

New York trailed 32-9 after the first, the lowest scoring first quarter for the Knicks in 55 years, according to STATS, LLC, and the worst offensive output in any quarter in nearly four years.

NOTES: The last time the Knicks scored nine points or fewer in any quarter was Nov. 14, 2007 against the . … The last time they scored nine points or fewer in the first quarter was Nov. 21, 1956 was against Fort Wayne, according to STATS, LLC, when they had a franchise-low five. … Anthony spoke to reporters for about five minutes before the game, calling his performance in Detroit a “rare day that I allowed myself to get frustrated. It happens.” Anthony said he talked to his teammates and Knicks coach on Saturday to assure them that it wouldn’t be a continuous thing. “All around, just a bad day,” Anthony said.