LOS ANGELES — Tuesday night at Staples Center would be the perfect time and place to do it.
Break the seven-year playoff drought against the defending champion Lakers with LeBron James on the court, making his return from another sprained ankle.
It’s the perfect Hollywood story and one more notch in the belt of Tom Thibodeau’s lovable Knicks, who have scripted a pandemic season out of nowhere.
You couldn’t get odds in Las Vegas that on May 11, the Knicks would face off in LA against the Lakers brandishing the same 38-30 record.
James, who practiced fully Monday and earlier admitted the NBA is better when the Knicks are relevant, isn’t going the whole season without facing New York.
“If he plays, it will be cool,’’ RJ Barrett said. “I don’t think he’s retiring anytime soon. And I’m going to be here for a while. So I’ll see him again.’’
The magic number for the Knicks to break the seven-year horror show is down to two.
If the seventh-place Celtics lose Tuesday to Miami, the Knicks would take the court needing a victory to clinch at least the sixth seed and avoid the play-in tournament to make the playoffs.
The Celtics, who could be a first-round opponent, received a massive blow Monday with the torn wrist ligament that ended Jaylen Brown’s season.The Knicks could clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Lakers.NBAE via Getty Images
Entering the season, getting into the play-in as the 10th seed would’ve been considered a success. This is a franchise that wasn’t even in a playoff race after the All-Star break the past six laughingstock seasons.
So the Knicks are playing with house money. Thibodeau’s urgency has them greedy.
“We’re not finished with what we’re doing,’’ said Derrick Rose, who is playing at close to his MVP level of 2011. “We have a goal. We want to keep getting better along the way. But [clinching the playoffs] would be big. But at the same time, Thibs always talks about going through the finish line.’’
Even if the Knicks can’t take out the Lakers on Tuesday, they’ll have three more chances at the Garden when they finish out the regular season with San Antonio, Charlotte and Boston. But how sweet it would be to do it in LA before the celebrities on the socially distanced courtside seating.
After shutting down the juggernaut Clippers at Staples Center on Sunday, the Knicks have already clinched at least a .500 record on this six-game, 11-day Western swing that was deemed a potential season killer. They are 3-2 with wins over Houston, Memphis and the Clippers.
“Sometimes the schedule is in your favor, sometimes no,’’ Thibodeau said. “Whatever you’re facing, to have the mental toughness to get through it and be successful, those are habits you have to build all year long. You can’t all of a sudden get here and say, ‘Oh, we got to be tough.’ It doesn’t happen like that.’’
They’ve wowed the NBA with their toughness, grit and durability all season — from the lunch-pail games of starting shooting guard Reggie Bullock, starting center Nerlens Noel and his backup, Taj Gibson, to the second-year jump of Barrett, to the All-Star season of Julius Randle.
The Knicks don’t beat the Clippers without Bullock stepping up Sunday with 24 points, hitting 5 of 12 3-pointers and staring down the LA bench after one key make late in the third quarter.
“He’s sort of the unsung hero,’’ Thibodeau said. “Every night he’s guarding a tough opponent. He never stops working on the defensive end. Reggie’s shooting has been off the charts. And so he’s got to continue to do that for us. It opens up so many things.”
The best part of these Knicks — along with their rugged, contest-every-shot defense — is the unselfishness on offense.
The last Knicks team to make the playoffs was Mike Woodson’s Knicks of 2012-13, but that was built solely around Carmelo Anthony’s scoring exploits and isolation baskets.
And those Knicks collapsed in the second round against Indiana.
Now they have Randle, whose ball movement on double teams is infectious. The Knicks spray the ball around until they get an open shot. For every generation of Knicks fans, it’s a joy to watch.
Somewhere, Red Holzman is smiling.
“When we call a play for you, it doesn’t mean it’s your shot,’’ Thibodeau said after the Clippers win. “It means it’s your responsibility to make the right read. If you’re being double-teamed, share the ball. That’s one thing this team has done all year long.”
They aren’t the 1970s Knicks. But Tuesday these Knicks can earn their place in team history by lighting fire to the most depressing period of Knicks basketball.