‘Pieces are definitely coming together’ for Knicks — and playoff goal has changed

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Knicks center Nerlens Noel doesn’t even want to know the format of the NBA’s experimental play-in tournament that puts the Nos. 7 through 10 seeds in a multi-game setup to qualify for the actual playoffs.

Not when the Knicks are on a six-game winning streak, playing their best basketball since the late 2013-14 playoff run that fell just short. The Knicks are tied for fifth place with Boston. They host the Hornets on Tuesday and the Hawks on Wednesday in a critical back-to-back.

The Hawks are in fourth place – and that’s where Noel is aiming. Fourth place guarantees homecourt advantage in the first round when the Garden will increase its capacity to roughly 5,000 fans.

“We have a big responsibility to ourselves,” Noel said before facing the eighth-place Hornets. “We have a mentality there is no seventh, eighth seed for us. It’s strictly focused on the 4-5-6 and making sure we have a solid spot. We worked really hard this season. It would be tough to put in that much work in and have a play-in thing. We have to take advantage of the position we’re in now and finish strong through this last stretch of the season so we’re in position to have one of those locked-in spots.”

A shot-blocking, physical anchor the defense, Noel is a big reason the Knicks are on the verge of breaking their seven-year playoff drought. He’s filled in seamlessly for injured starting center Mitchell Robinson, who at the earliest would be back for the playoffs.

The Knicks can only assure a breaking of the playoff drought by finishing sixth or better. The play-in event doesn’t guarantee the playoffs. In fact, the losers go back to the lottery.

The Knicks have the longest winning streak in the NBA — their 31-27 record has them in one weekly power-ranking poll at No. 9 in the NBA. It seems like ancient history that Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks were blowing all those late-fourth quarter contests.

“The pieces are definitely coming together,” Noel said after Tuesday’s morning shootaround. “At some point, when we lost those close games as we did, we’re still in good shape. We’ve turned the corner where we’re closing these games and knowing the type of energy and effort and focus and attention to detail we need to close these fourth-quarter games.”

Noel and Julius Randle, the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, have formed an all-Kentucky, all-formidable frontcourt tandem. Mr. Defense and Mr. Offense.

“We’re very complementary,” said Noel, who signed a team-friendly one-year, $5 million deal in the offseason. “I told him at the beginning of the year I’m going to try to help his game, work off each other. It works because we’re selfless players. Julius knows what he’s good at. I know what I’m good at. I’ll take care of the defensive end. You take care of the offensive end.”

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