Even if the Knicks were to lose this first-round series versus the Hawks, Knicks veteran center Taj Gibson said he thinks the franchise won.
Asked by The Post before do-or-die Game 5 on Wednesday how he’d assess the season if the Knicks didn’t reach the second round, the 35-year-old veteran center said, “Have you seen the crowd and emotions around the city — it shows the love,” Gibson said. “I’ve been around a long time in some really loud places. The atmosphere in the Garden, atmosphere around the city, people constantly encouraging you about the game.
“You go down and get a bagel or cup of coffee, everybody is giving us praise about what we’re doing in changing the culture. The city is paying attention, but we don’t feel we’re done yet. Right now it’s a starting block to what the team wants to do and what the organization wants to do as a whole.”
Trailing 3-1, the Knicks were defiant in the days leading up to Game 5 after Hawks center Clint Capela said he’s in New York to “put the Knicks on vacation.’’
The Post asked RJ Barrett the same question about how he’d judge the season if they didn’t prevail in the first round, and the former Duke sniper snapped. An edgy Barrett didn’t want to hear any of it after Wednesday’s morning shootaround ahead of Game 5 at the Garden — even offering a rare guarantee.
“Why you got to be so negative?” Barrett said. “I ain’t thinking about that. We’re winning tonight. I ain’t thinking about that. C’mon, bro. Stupid-ass question.”
Indeed, the Knicks’ combative spirit will serve them well for the future. Barrett knew the Knicks faced long odds, as no Knicks team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in 13 tries.
Entering Game 5, the Knicks had little momentum. In the two blowout losses in Atlanta, the Hawks scored 116 points per 100 possessions and drained 47 percent of their 3s. But with the Garden crowd as fuel, the Knicks expected a different performance. These Knicks led the NBA in opponent scoring average and 3-point field-goal defense during a 41-31 regular season.
The Knicks were passive at the trade deadline, realizing this was just a stepping-stone year and will look forward to $60 million in cap space while judging whether to re-sign their free agents — guards Derrick Rose, Reggie Bullock, and Alec Burks and centers Nerlens Noel and Gibson. Point guards Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina are as good as gone.
Gibson had the most playoff experience on the team (66 games entering the series), making the playoffs with the Bulls, Timberwolves and Thunder. But Gibson said he’s been easy with his advice, wanting the young guys to experience this cauldron without filters.
“You can’t tell them too much,’’ Gibson said. “The younger guys, they want to get out and get a feel for themselves. Our guys kind of understand it now. The mental part is more important than the physical part. You got to know the plays, the same sets. Our young guys are on a learning curve, and it’s good for them. It’s helping them grow day by day.’’
All-Star Julius Randle has struggled, and Barrett, the team’s second option, had had only one productive outing entering Wednesday. He scored 21 points in the Game 4 loss, finally finding his range on his corner 3-pointers. For the series, Barrett is averaging 13.8 points but is shooting 39.7 percent overall and 27 percent from 3-point range.
Scout always talk up Barrett as a player never lacking in bravado.
“Very locked in, very confident,’’ Barrett said Wednesday morning. “[We] had a couple of days to prepare. We have to bring even more fight. X’s and O’s are cool, but we really got to play hard. We have to bring the fight to them.
“Normally the hungrier team wins. That’s what we got to be. We can’t win them at all at once. We got to go quarter by quarter, possession by possession.’’