Knicks playoff chase could become historic due to Garden struggles

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The home of the Knicks becomes the world’s most infamous arena.

Madison Square Garden, the most prestigious venue in the NBA, has been transformed into the horror house of the Knicks. Their latest home loss, an overtime loss Monday to the Raptors, brought them back to 11-12 at the Garden this season.

Of the 20 teams participating in Tuesday’s NBA play-in tournament, or postseason, the Knicks were the only club to be under .500 at home.

“It’s frustrating. Obviously we want to win at home,” said Jalen Brunson after his 26 points were squandered on Monday. “We have one of the best fans in the world, but obviously this is a historic place to play, so everyone is here to give their best.”

That’s the usual explanation: opposing teams don’t need a second cup of coffee to get up for yard games. Stars don’t want to sit with New York watching. The same rationale was expressed last season, when the Knicks went 17-24 at the Garden and missed the postseason.

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There are plenty of reasons why the Knicks struggle to win at Madison Square Garden.
Jason Szenes for the New York Post

But last season was a lost season all around. The 2022-23 Knicks have been outstanding on the road, where they are 14-8, and they can fight for home field advantage in the first round. Since the 1976–77 merger, only seven teams have qualified for the postseason on a losing streak at home, including the 2021–22 Nets, who were the seventh seed and likely need an asterisk because Kyrie Irving was banned from playing in Barclays Center for most of the season.

When the Knicks host the Wizards on Wednesday, they begin the game as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and flirt with a bizarre historical anomaly. No team since the NBA-ABA merger has had a losing record at home and finished in the top six in the conference.

“I think we just need to focus on the little things,” Brunson said before tackling the issues as a whole. “Many of these losses come with one or two assets, marginal losses. We need to be 1 percent, 2 percent better.”

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He is right. The Knicks have outscored their opponents at home by an average margin of 115.5-112.5. The rims were friendlier in the Garden, where they shoot 40.3 percent versus 39.4 percent on the road, but the extra bucket or two wasn’t the difference in enough games.

Eleven Knicks games in the Garden have been decided by seven or fewer points. The Knicks have lost eight of those games.

Included are crushing losses to the Bucks, Bulls, Hawks and Trail Blazers in games where the Knicks had huge or late leads. On Tuesday, the Knicks were the third-worst team in the NBA in the second half of home games, outscored by 72 points. Only the pathetic Rockets and Spurs, with a combined 23 wins, were worse on their home courts in the third and fourth quarters.

Close games keep going in the wrong direction, which likely influenced coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotations. On Monday, at the back of a back-to-back, Brunson, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett played for a total of 134 minutes. Thibodeau’s extra reliance on his best players didn’t change the game, and the coach seemed suspicious of the on-duty agency.

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Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts in the second half
Tom Thibodeau is still trying to find the right rotation to help the Knicks at home.
Jason Szenes for the New York Post

“It was hard to say what an offense was,” Thibodeau said after the Raptors shot 41 free throws, six more than the Knicks.

If even the one on duty doesn’t go to your liking, home cooking has gotten old.

After the Knicks take on the below average Wizards, there won’t be many opportunities to beat their home record. Of the next 10 games at the Garden, only one will be against a team that went outside the playoffs on Tuesday: LeBron James’ Lakers. The Cavaliers, Heat, Clippers, 76ers, Jazz, Nets (twice), Pelicans and Celtics are not intimidated as they enter what many call “the Mecca.”

“I worry about everything, so I watch everything,” said Thibodeau last month, when asked if he was worried about his team’s struggles at home.

There’s plenty to look at.