NEW YORK — From the day he became president of the Knicks in 2008, Donnie Walsh has looked and worked toward the future.
The first part of his mission was to slash payroll and dump bloated contracts so the Knicks could be in position to pursue the NBA’s elite free agents.
The second part involved pursuing those free agents last summer, and ultimately landing Amar’e Stoudemire, while coming up short in the Lebronathon.
In February, Walsh pulled off one of the biggest trades of his career when he tore apart the roster to acquire Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups from the Nuggets.
Having done all of that, the Knicks are now in the postseason for the first time since 2004. Yet Walsh still hasn’t stopped looking toward the horizon.
“I’ve never gone into a playoff where, ‘Oh, it’s alright if we lose,'” Walsh said before the Bulls beat the Knicks, 103-90, Tuesday at MSG. “I don’t ever think that way.
“I could say this. This team, I’m happy they’re in the playoffs because it will be a big moment for them in their future.”
Despite all their injuries and question marks, Boston is still the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. They have been to the NBA Finals twice in the last three years, winning the title in 2008.
As good as the top-seeded Bulls look right now — and they looked really good in exploding for a 26-2 game-changing, third-quarter run highlighted by Derrick Rose’s reverse tomahawk jam — the path to the NBA Finals still goes through Boston.
“You can’t measure [their experience],” said former Celtic and current Knick Bill Walker. “You have to have been there and done it to really get a grip on the level of talent they have. I mean you got guys that are known finishers, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, [Kevin Garnett] former Defensive Player of the Year. That stuff is invaluable.”
The Celtics are 9-11 in their last 20 games and appear to not be the same team they were before center Kendrick Perkins, a key cog on the championship team, was dealt to Oklahoma City.
“Time will tell but Perkins is a big part of their defense along with KG,” Walker said. “Perkins can guard any big man one-on-one. You don’t have to double-team. When you have guys like that, that’s a big plus for your defense.”
Shaquille O’Neal has missed 44 games this season with an assortment of leg injuries and it remains unclear how many minutes he can give the Celtics in the postseason.
“They haven’t had Shaq out there and he will be a factor because he’s the biggest guy in the league,” Walsh said.
“They’re kind of unknown right now to me because they haven’t had Shaq. They traded Kendrick. Jermaine [O’Neal]’s playing a little bit right now.
“I think they still have the same ingredients that they had before, and then they got guys that know how to win the game when it’s time to win the game.”
The Knicks, meanwhile, have played just 27 games with Anthony and 18 with Stoudemire, Anthony and Billups together.
Stoudemire sat out his third straight game last night with a sprained ankle, but ran sprints on the court before the game and said he felt ready to go. Head coach Mike D’Antoni said he’ll evaluate today whether Stoudemire will play the season finale in Boston Wednesday night.
Billups said Tuesday that the Knicks remained “the most dangerous first round team in the NBA,” and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was inclined to agree.
“If you’re preparing for Billups, Anthony and Stoudemire, that’s a lot,” he said. “They get great shots. Mike’s team have always shared the ball, so they’re hard to guard. And they play off their best players. They shoot the 3 extremely well. You have to have a multiple-effort mentality to challenge those 3’s and their quick to the ball.
“And I think they’ve gotten a lot better defensively, so they’re playing at a high level. Their depth maybe isn’t what it was a little earlier, but I like the guys that they’re playing now. We had Shelden Williams in Boston, he’s a good player. [Toney] Douglas is a good player. Shawne Williams, good player. This is a good team.
“And at the end when you’re looking at guys like Stoudemire and Anthony and Billups, and Billups has been in a lot of big situations, so I think they’re real tough.”
The Knicks remain a flawed team. They lack a defensive-minded presence near the basket. They lack a knock-down shooter. They rely on a few superstars and a very thin bench.
Yet Walsh has engineered them back to the postseason for the first time since 2004.
And if the Knicks can make this series interesting, Walsh sounds like he’ll take that as a building block toward a potentially greater future.