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Austin Rivers plays key role for Knicks despite lack of practice time

Austin Rivers #8 of the Knicks passes the

Austin Rivers #8 of the Knicks passes the ball against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on January 02, 2021 in Indianapolis. Credit: Getty Images/Andy Lyons

With the clock ticking down Saturday night and the Knicks fading and facing a one-point deficit against the Pacers, coach Tom Thibodeau called for Austin Rivers to enter the game.

With the game appearing to be slipping away, it wasn’t strange for Thibodeau to reach to his bench for an answer. What was odd was that he reached for Rivers.

Rivers still hadn’t practiced at all with his teammates. He was injured before training camp began. As he made his way back from a strained groin, he worked with trainers and got some action playing with assistant coaches and staff members before finally making his Knicks debut two days before Saturday’s game.

But Rivers entered the game with the trust of his coach and delivered, helping the Knicks to a 106-102 road win over Indiana. He had 15 points in 17 minutes, including a three-point field goal with 3:23 left — less than 30 seconds after he entered the game — that gave the Knicks the lead for good at 98-96. His basket with 35 seconds remaining made it 102-96.

"I think the experience is huge," Thibodeau said. "Again, it gives you another guy who can put the ball on the floor. He can make threes. He can play defense. So that’s the way, in general, the league is moving. I thought he made big shots and he hasn’t practiced a lot. He’ll get better and better. He’s still working his way through the conditioning part of it."

Rivers shot 6-for-9 from the field and 3-for-6 from three-point range.

He was not able to help much through training camp and the first four games of the season, but he did try to impart some leadership to one of the NBA’s youngest rosters.

When Rivers made his debut on New Year’s Eve in a loss to the Toronto Raptors in Tampa, he took to social media afterward, ringing in the New Year and sounding like a fan as he wrote a long comment on the Knicks’ Instagram page.

"Usually don’t comment on this type of stuff," he wrote. "But it’s a process. Trust us. We getting better. We have a new great coach, all new players, really young, learning to play with each other and get chemistry right still, and we still getting all the way healthy. It’s a process but I promise we getting there step by step. Just be there for us. We need y’all. Y’all apart of our success and growth too. Knicks going to be [hot emoji] again. But our process starting now. Happy New year. Stay safe."

It was an unusual tack for any player, much less one who had played only a few minutes with his new team.

"I’ve never done that," he said after Saturday’s game. "I’ve never commented on the team page. I don’t think anybody usually does. Just because I know the Knicks have great fans. And I know they’ve been waiting a long time to see progress. But we’re on the right direction . . .   So I just wanted to let people know to be patient. We’re working so hard.

"Tonight’s a big win, but we know we have more work to do. Every time I get in the locker room, I tell guys, we got to keep building, we got to keep building. So we’re headed in the right direction.

"I just wanted to let people know that we’re doing good things and just to be with us and it’s going to be fun. We have a lot of work to do, we have a lot to improve on. But I know we have great fans, so I wanted to let them know we’re doing everything we can and we’re building, and we’re going to get there."

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