A win over the Boston Celtics a month ago was one of the early highlights of a season-saving surge for the New York Knicks.
On Monday night, the Celtics visit the Knicks in a rematch between longtime rivals as the NBA’s top team embarks upon another potentially defining stretch. The Knicks will look to continue their climb into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Both teams were off Sunday after earning victories Saturday night. The Knicks never trailed in a 128-106 victory over the visiting New Orleans Pelicans, while the Celtics edged the host Philadelphia 76ers 110-107 in a wild back-and-forth game.
The win was the fifth straight for the Knicks, who have gone 10-4 since Jan. 24 to move into sixth place and the last guaranteed playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
New York entered Sunday 2 1/2 games ahead of the seventh-place Miami Heat as well as a half-game behind the fifth-place Brooklyn Nets and 2 1/2 games back of the fourth-place Cleveland Cavaliers. The top four teams will have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The Knicks’ recent 10-4 run includes wins over four of the five teams ahead of them in the East -- including the Celtics, whom New York edged 120-117 on the road in overtime on Jan. 26.
Monday’s game marks the beginning of a four-game stretch this week in which the Knicks will face the Celtics twice -- the two teams are slated to play again at Boston next Sunday -- as well as the Nets and Heat.
“We knew we had this challenge coming off the break,” said power forward Julius Randle, who scored 74 points in the Knicks’ first two games following the All-Star break. “We knew that before we went to break. So I think mentally we prepared for it.”
The defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics have gotten a further taste of postseason-like intensity while going 9-2 since their loss to the Knicks. The run has helped them to maintain their slim margin in the race for the No. 1 seed.
Boston entered Sunday one game ahead of the second-place Milwaukee Bucks and four games ahead of the third-place 76ers.
After squandering a 10-point halftime lead and outlasting the Indiana Pacers 142-138 in overtime on Thursday night, the Celtics fell behind 67-52 early in the third quarter Saturday against the 76ers before mounting a 45-20 run to take a 97-87 lead midway through the fourth.
The 76ers then stormed back before the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum drained the game-winning 26-footer with 1.3 seconds left. Philadelphia superstar Joel Embiid followed by hitting a potentially game-tying 75-footer, but the ball did not leave his hand before the buzzer.
“Our guys have been there,” said first-year Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla, who was an assistant with Boston last season. “They’ve been through it all.”