After so many hard times in a season of harsh surprises, the New York Knicks clinched a playoff spot Thursday night with, of all things, an easy one.
"Right now tonight we're just happy to be there," coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "Some years, getting in late and just qualifying seventh or eighth would be a disappointment, This year, it's a success for the players. They really showed a lot of character."
There was no celebrating by the Knicks at the final buzzer as they completed their 55th game since Ewing fractured his wrist. The locker room was quiet, too, with the players seeming to enjoy a sense of relief more than anything else.
"This team has never been known as a quitting team," forward Chris Mills said. "There's a lot of pride on this team, and that's the one thing that put us over the hump."
With New York claiming one of the two remaining playoff spots, New Jersey and Washington are left fighting for the last berth in the East. The Nets can clinch it with a victory in one of their two remaining games.
The Knicks now can lock up the seventh seed and a first-round matchup with Miami in one of two ways: By winning Saturday at Chicago or having the Nets lose one of their remaining games against Orlando or Detroit.
"No matter where we play in the playoffs, I'm sure we'll be a prohibitive underdog," Van Gundy said.
Larry Johnson, one of several Knicks with injuries big and small, scored 26 points despite playing on two sore ankles. Mills added 21 points, while Allan Houston had 14 and Chris Childs 13.
It was only the second win in the last seven games for the Knicks, who have stumbled through the final stretch of the season, losing 15 of 24 games as the wear and tear of playing without Ewing took its toll.
"Major injuries are hard to overcome, and many teams don't. But our team has persevered well," Van Gundy said.
The Knicks maintained the fourth-longest postseason appearance streak in the league behind Portland (16 seasons), Utah (15) and Chicago (14), and will enter the first round, despite their mediocre record, as one of the most playoff-tested teams in the league.
"When the injury happened, you replan and retool and think of ways you can try to get it done," said Van Gundy, who was asked if he ever had any doubts that the Knicks would make the playoffs. "I don't know about doubt, but concern, yeah, coaches always have concern."
"We've had our ups and down and ooked good and bad. I'm real happy with the guys, and now Saturday is about trying to go from eighth to seventh."
Ewing, who was the first member of the Knicks to leave the court after the horn sounded, was the first to exit the building, too.
Asked if he had anything to say about his teammates, he replied: "Nothing. I'm happy. That's it."
The clincher against the Raptors stayed close for only one quarter.
The Knicks, getting layup after layup against a timid Toronto defense, pulled away behind the 12-for-20 shooting of Johnson.
A three-point play by Buck Williams with 16 seconds left in the first quarter made it 29-27 and put New York ahead for good, and the Knicks opened the second quarter with six layups and two 3-pointers by John Starks to expand their lead to double digits.
An awkward, back-to-the-basket lefty layup by Starks to end the first half gave New York a 61-45 lead that grew to 77-49 midway through the third quarter and 90-60 entering the fourth.
"As a team, we were absolutely, positively soft," Toronto coach Butch Carter said. "We folded up."
New York outrebounded Toronto 59-41. Doug Christie led the Raptors with 14 points.
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