Knicks should have prevailed in Game 5 against 76ers. But in this series, absurdity rules

NEW YORK — The New York Knicks should have finished off the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday.

They should have removed all hope from Tyrese Maxey’s naive mind, one that had the audacity to believe a 6-point deficit with 28 seconds remaining was no problem. They should have sent Joel Embiid into the offseason abyss, left to wonder only about his nine turnovers in what should have been an elimination game. They should have moved on to the second round of the NBA playoffs.

They did none of it.

The Sixers are still alive, returning to Philadelphia for Game 6 of a first-round series they now trail 3-2 after pulling off a comeback that never should have been. On Tuesday, they downed the Knicks 112-106 in overtime after a miraculous, Maxey-led run during the final 28.9 seconds of regulation.

Philadelphia should not have had a chance. But if there is one theme to this series, it’s that whatever should happen goes directly into the shredder. Over the past two weeks, absurdity rules.

This is Knicks-76ers, where crunchtime fouls are non-calls, where injured centers go off for 50 points on 19 shots, where Josh Hart makes either every 3-pointer or no 3-pointers, where undersized point guards throttle to 47-point performances, where both Maxey and Donte DiVincenzo are encouraged to bust out their best Reggie Miller impressions, where whatever you least expect to occur is what happens.

On Tuesday, just one event leading to the Knicks’ demise would not have been absurdist enough.

It started with a Maxey 4-point play after receiving an inbounds pass with 28.9 seconds to go in the fourth quarter and with his Sixers down six. Mitchell Robinson never should have leaped at a shooter so recklessly.

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The 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey reacts during overtime in Game 5. He finished with 46 points in the win against the Knicks. (Brad Penner / USA Today)

“I’m just going to take it like a man,” Robinson said. “I f—– up. I mean, s—, I gotta be better next game.”

Yet, that one mistake should not have lost the Knicks the game. They were up two with 25 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and held the ball. All they had to do was not err so egregiously again.

But then Hart went to the line for two free throws, hoping to put New York up four, and missed one of them.

“If I made both, we win,” Hart said. “So you know what the situation is, and I gotta take that one on the chin and not let it happen again.”

The window remained cracked open barely enough for a faint stream of air to seep through — not that it mattered, considering Maxey bashed through it with a sledgehammer anyway.

This is when the Knicks entered schematic pandemonium. Up three with under 15 seconds to go, they could have strategically fouled Maxey, sending the All-Star guard to the line for a couple of free throws and taking away his ability to chuck up the tying shot. Head coach Tom Thibodeau wanted to do it. But Maxey, who finished with 46 points that felt like it may as well have been 100, was too quick.

A screen took Miles “Deuce” McBride out of the action. Once he was behind Maxey, he couldn’t hack him. The risk of the dribbler rising for a shot once he felt contact from his backside would have been too high. The last error the Knicks could afford only one possession after Maxey nailed a four-point play against them would be another foul on a deep ball.

Then Maxey pulled up at the logo, 34 feet from the hoop.

The shot should not have gone in. But when a 23-year-old fresh off a Most Improved Player win, someone who has burst into this series with don’t-forget-about-me energy, is the one taking it, magical moments can happen.

On this occasion, a group of them did.

Maxey finished a 4-point play. Hart missed a free throw. The Knicks failed to foul and later said it was because of a miscommunication. And Maxey, whose stardom is popping to another level, answered another prayer.

“Just tough way to lose a ballgame,” Thibodeau said. “We had a lead. We’ve got to play tougher with the lead.”

Thibodeau will be the first to say: There are no fun ways to lose in the playoffs. But this one bit at an usually even-keeled team.

Hart sat at his locker after the game for longer than normal, hunched over, elbows resting on his thighs, thinking about his missed free throw that could have put away the Sixers.

As Hart did on his missed freebie, Robinson took accountability for his foul, vowing to be better next game. What did that mean to him?

“Don’t foul his ass,” Robinson said.

McBride relitigated his execution on that final possession when he could have fouled Maxey. Once Maxey blew past the screen, McBride was toast. But in retrospect, he said he “probably should’ve been up on him a little bit more.” Thibodeau and various players talked after the game about a lack of communication before that play. Thibodeau yelled from the sideline to foul, but a hack never came.

The would’ve, could’ve, should’ve did not include hypotheticals from only the final 30 seconds of regulation.

The Knicks went up five in overtime. They couldn’t hold the lead. There was the turnover from Jalen Brunson with the Knicks down two and under 20 seconds to go in overtime, when he rose for a jumper, then tried for a pass but flung it out of bounds. There were other missed free throws. The Knicks clanked eight of their 24 attempts.

One hiccup is an annoyance. Two is a burden. An onslaught of them makes it difficult to breathe.

Then Maxey stepped on their throat.

The Knicks fouled when they shouldn’t have, didn’t when they could have and missed when the Sixers fouled them. If that’s too convoluted to understand, imagine how it must have felt to live through.

“That’s a game we should have won,” Hart said. “But now all we can do is just watch film and regroup and get ready for the game, whatever it is.”

(Top photo of Joel Embiid fouling Jalen Brunson during overtime Tuesday: Brad Penner / USA Today)

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