The Knicks officially have no other choice

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ATLANTA — At the end, there were hard fouls and some hard feelings, a few elbows and a few shoves, and lots of laughter on the other side of the floor. Opposite the Knicks bench, Spike Lee sat, chin in his hands, grim, glum, representing the fans back home who by now had certainly opted for other television choices on a rainy day.

Behind the Knicks, up on the mezzanine level at State Farm Arena, a chant began in earnest.




The final seconds tumbled off the clock, the final score of Game 4 — Hawks 113, Knicks 96 — etched into place forever. Before untucking his jersey and stalking off the floor, Julius Randle shook hands with his teammates, offering words of encouragement. The final buzzer groaned.

And so did the Knicks’ season.

“We’ve got to fix this,” Tom Thibodeau said, “and we’ve got to fix it fast.”

Things move at lightning speed in the NBA playoffs, which is something the Knicks coach has tried to preach for weeks. Concern becomes crisis becomes calamity, with catastrophe loitering around the corner, quicker than you believe possible. The Knicks are three-quarters of the way through that terrible gauntlet. Whatever margin for error they owned — and it has always been Wheat Thins thin — is gone.

They have officially entered the elimination portion of the calendar. It happens that fast.

“We’ve been down the whole year,” Knicks center Taj Gibson said. “This is nothing new. We’re looking forward to the next game.”

It has been their feisty formula all year, and it has served them well, but this time the next game could be the last game. This time the first tee time of summer could be waiting on the other side of a 48-minute task Wednesday night, Game 5 at the Garden, the Hawks playing superbly and the Knicks having played about four passable quarters among the 16 contested so far. They are running out of quarters. They are running out of games.

They are running out of season.

“Everything is on the table now,” Thibodeau said. “Give us what you have.”

What the Knicks have — what may be all they have left — is a season of testimony that argues they are forever at their best when they are about to be abandoned. And make no mistake: They are basketball orphans now. It is impossible to see how well the Hawks have played across these four games — how much better they’ve played than the Knicks — and not think the Hawks fans are on to something believing they won’t be needed for a Game 6 back here next Friday.

“I like our chances,” Julius Randle said, before editing himself: “I love our chances.”

Those chances will be easier to visualize if the glacial improvements Randle made Sunday gain momentum before Wednesday. He still didn’t shoot great (7-for-19) and he was still too careless with the ball (five turnovers) but he did score 23 and grab 10 rebounds and hand out seven assists, and that at least approximates what he was during the season.

It will also be useful if he gets some help. Reggie Bullock and Immanuel Quickley missed all seven of the shots they took, combining for zero points. Alec Burks is shooting 30 percent since his epic 27-point outburst in Game 1. The Hawks, meanwhile, may be led by Trae Young but they have been getting big moments and big shots from everyone.

“They are not a one-man team,” RJ Barrett said, and he is correct, and he has seen it up close as the Hawks have gained confidence every game in this series, gained swagger, enough that it drew the ire of both Bullock and Randle late in the game — enough where if there was a penalty box in the NBA, they both would’ve spent the game’s final minutes there.

“We had to let them know,” Randle said, “that we’re not just accepting this [stuff].”

If the hard feelings translate to a better performance Wednesday, remember them. If it turns out it was one final flare shot into a dark sky, remember that, too. The Knicks face steep odds and steeper history here. NBA teams, all time, are 13-for-260 when facing a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven. The Knicks are 0-for-13; eight of those times they expired immediately, in Game 5.

It would feel wrong for this team, after this season, to dissolve that way. But, then, nothing about this series seems to represent anything that came before.

“There’s resiliency to this team,” Thibodeau said. “We have to fight back. And we will.”

They officially have no other choice.

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