Clippers, Knicks meet amid scrapping for playoff positioning

Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers each have about a third of the season left to play. But they each got reminders Thursday night how narrow the margins already are in the race for playoff seeding.

The Knicks and Clippers will be looking to get a chance to polish their finishing skills Saturday night, when New York is slated to host Los Angeles in the first game of the season between the teams.

Both teams were off Friday after playing eventful games with nearly identical final scores Thursday night.

The Knicks frittered away most of an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead and nearly blew a five-point edge in the final seconds before escaping with a 106-104 win over the visiting Miami Heat. The Clippers led by 21 points in the third quarter before the host Milwaukee Bucks stormed back behind a dominant fourth quarter by Giannis Antetokounmpo and earned a 106-105 victory.

The reverberations from Thursday night’s chaotic endings could be felt when the playoffs — or the play-in tournament — begin in April.

The Knicks both led by 14 and trailed by three in the third quarter before mounting an 15-9 run to open the fourth and take an 11-point lead with seven minutes left. New York then allowed the Heat to get within a possession six times before taking a seemingly insurmountable 106-101 lead on a dunk by Julius Randle with 5.2 seconds left.

After a timeout by the Heat, Max Strus hit a 3-pointer to pull Miami within two. Bam Adebayo was called for a foul, but Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra successfully challenged and overturned the call, which resulted in a turnover on Randle. Following another timeout, Tyler Herro missed a 3-pointer from the corner.

The win pulled the Knicks within a game of the Heat for the sixth and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Entering Friday’s play, New York is also four games clear of the 11th-place Indiana Pacers, who fell to the Los Angeles Lakers 112-111 on Thursday.

“It was great, we needed it,” Randle said after he finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds. “They’re above us and we want to close that gap a little bit.”

Despite not playing a conference foe Thursday, the Clippers could still be haunted by their loss down the stretch of the regular season. Los Angeles mounted a 48-23 run spanning almost 12 minutes to take a 76-55 lead with 7:26 remaining in the third and carried an 87-78 lead into the fourth before Antetokounmpo scored 20 points in the final 12 minutes.

Antetokounmpo, who finished with 54 points and 19 rebounds, scored the game’s final points by hitting a pair of free throws with 1:47 left. He ended the evening by missing his final three shots and turning the ball over once, but the Clippers couldn’t take advantage as they went 0-for-4 from the field. Kawhi Leonard missed three shots in the stretch, including an 18-footer just before the buzzer.

The loss, coupled with the Dallas Mavericks’ 111-106 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, dropped the Clippers into a virtual tie for fourth place in the Western Conference with the Mavericks. The fourth- through 13th-place in the West entered Friday separated by just three games.

“We did what we were supposed to, all the way up until the last couple minutes,” said Clippers forward Paul George, who missed a 3-pointer with 43 seconds left.

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson is questionable due to a non-COVID illness. He sat out Thursday’s game.

–Field Level Media

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