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Knicks’ new challenge is figuring out how to gel once injured stars return to lineup

A new day is on the horizon for the Knicks.

They have yet to play a game at full strength this season. Now with OG Anunoby and Jalen Brunson nearing a return, and both Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson progressing as well, the light previously at the distant end of the dark tunnel suddenly shines bright through the Tarrytown training facility corridors.

“It’s big for us,” said trade deadline acquisition Bojan Bogdanovic. “Right now we’re down four starters, so it’s hard to play that way. So it’s great to see those guys getting back healthy and getting back in shape as well.”

The depleted, outmatched Knicks have lost nine of their last 12 games and may very well drop a 10th in the last 13 facing an Orlando Magic team going for a 4-0 season series sweep of the Knicks on Friday.

Losses matter more now for a Knicks team fighting for its playoff life, but getting the stars back healthy ranks atop the totem pole of priorities.

With its stars, the Knicks went 12-2 in January. With its stars, the Knicks believe their ascent up the Eastern Conference standings will resume as scheduled.

“I’ll just be excited to have our team back,” Josh Hart said after practice on Thursday. “We haven’t had our whole team one game this season in terms of what we have now or what we’ll end the season with.

“So, just excited to get those guys back hopefully with time to really gel and get accustomed to each other’s games and everything so we can finish the season off right and go into the playoffs feeling good.”

Time, of course, is not on the Knicks’ side.

There are only 20 games left on the schedule, and the Knicks may only be able to count the number of games they’ll have at full strength leading into the playoffs on one hand.

Randle, Anunoby and Robinson, for example, will each need to have their workload managed in their first games back onto the court after injury. They’ll have to get back into game shape — which can only happen playing NBA minutes — then get comfortable trusting their bodies once again.

“Usually what happens when a player goes through whatever injury they have, every player has to get back to where they trust their body again,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “And that usually doesn’t happen until there’s a play in the game where you go, ‘Hey, I’m OK.’”

The Knicks don’t have much wiggle room.

They have a month and a week to get everyone on the same page and only 20 games — shorthanded for most — to retain a standing of sixth or better in the East.

And once their starting front court returns to the floor, they’ll have a limited number of games to build cohesion as a team before the playoffs roll around.

If they can avoid the Play-In Tournament reserved for seeds Nos. 7-10 — a big if given the injury severity combined with a jumbled Eastern Conference playoff race — the Knicks can use the extra days ahead of the playoffs to make up for lost time.

“Only 20 [games] left. Ideally, we’d have eight to 10 [games fully healthy],” Hart said. “Hopefully, we can finish the season off strong and not be in the Play-In and have those four, five, six days in terms of rest, practice and stuff like that, just to get everyone really acclimated.

“That would be ideal. Obviously, nothing ever works out perfectly, but that would be the ideal thing.”

Therein lies another challenge: Players reverting back to minimal roles when the stars return to the rotation.

Hart, for example, averaged 28.2 minutes per game this season before Anunoby left the rotation due to elbow inflammation. He is since averaging a league-leading 40.6 minutes per game.

And his workload will surely slice once he returns to coming off the bench for Anunoby and Randle in the coming weeks.

“I know when guys come back and I’ll get back to 28 to 30-32 range,” Hart said. “I can be more energetic. I won’t have to save myself [for later in the game]. I can fly around more, be more aggressive defensively, more aggressive offensively and get back to playing my game kind of how I want to play it.

“Obviously looking forward to getting OG back and [Julius] back and those guys really create offense and then just of me going out there and having my game allow everyone to excel; to do the dirty work and those kind of things. So sometimes we might be frustrated. I know I want to play more. I feel like I’m a pretty good player in the league, and we [have] a team that’s really good. I want to get 25 minutes a night or 20 minutes a night. I think we’ll be in a good position.”

Bogdanovic is another player whose looks will likely change once Randle and Anunoby return to the fold.

His shot profile could change with another isolation scorer coming back onto the floor. His minutes could fluctuate, too. Bogdanovic is averaging 25.4 minutes per game since his arrival in New York.

Will he be on the floor in crunch time when he’s been a big-shot maker elsewhere much of his career?

Bogi’s main focus is continuing to learn Thibodeau’s offensive system. He and Alec Burks come to the training facility on non-practice days just to work through sets. This will not change when Randle and Anunoby return to the rotation.

“We’ve got a great group of guys and they’re trying to help us and help each other on the court,” he said on Thursday. “We are doing our 5-on-0 before every practice to understand our position in the system and rotation. It’s gonna take probably a couple games for us and a couple games for them to get back into game shape, but I think we’ll be fine.”

The system won’t change either. With Thibodoeau, the system is the only constant.

That’s because the system works. Players get hurt all the time. They miss games for a variety of reasons. Trades happen. So do personal situations.

You can’t always bank on a player’s availability — but you can bank on the game plan, so long as the players stick to it.

“I think that’s the nature of our league,” Thibodeau said on Thursday. “Obviously you want everyone healthy, that’s when we’re at our best, that’s where everyone’s at their best. But you also know that injuries are part of the game. So when that happens, you have to have a strategy for whatever it is that you’re going through.

“And so we understand that you’re not replacing a Julius Randle or a Jalen when they’re out. But collectively we can, we’re all capable of playing great defense. rebounding, taking care of the ball. That puts you in position to win. So if we do those things, we know we’ll have a good chance.”

The Knicks are inching closer to full health, and with the bill comes its own set of challenges.

They’re challenges the Knicks will surely embrace. A fully-healthy Knicks team is a problem — even with just a handful of games left to lead into the playoffs.


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