“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.”
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.