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Austin Rivers makes Knicks debut vs. Raptors in New Year's Eve game

Raptors forward Chris Boucher and Knicks guard Austin

Raptors forward Chris Boucher and Knicks guard Austin Rivers chase a loose ball during the second half of an NBA game on Thursday in Tampa, Fla.  Credit: AP/Chris O'Meara

It was one last oddity in 2020 that when Austin Rivers made his Knicks debut on New Year’s Eve, he did it in a city that doesn't have an NBA team without ever having played or practiced with his new teammates before.

Rivers, who has been dealing with a groin injury, was upgraded to probable. That put him in the unlikely situation of working with his new team for the first time in a regular-season game against the Raptors that was played in Tampa, thousands of miles south of New York City or Toronto.

"I didn’t get to play a game, a preseason game," Rivers said in a Zoom call after the Knicks' morning shootaround. "I haven’t even gone five-on-five yet. Just going right into it [Thursday night].

"It’s basketball, at the end of the day. You just go out there and play hard and it’s not rocket science. You’re just trying to help the team win. I don’t know if they’re going to have me on a minute restriction or not, I don’t know what the deal is. They’ll put me in in little increments and see how it feels and go from there."

Rivers had seven points and five assists in 21 minutes in the Knicks' 100-83 loss.

Rivers, 28, already was feeling groin soreness before signing with the Knicks in free agency during the abbreviated offseason. The injury held the ninth-year guard out of every practice session in training camp, the entire preseason schedule and the first four games of the regular season. He did not participate in a single practice session, including the final workout ahead of the game against the Raptors.

"To this day I have not practiced yet," Rivers said. "It happened like a week and a half before I signed with the Knicks, but I didn’t know it was that serious. I just thought I might have pulled something lightly, nothing serious. It’s still nothing serious. But it turned out to be a good pull and I just couldn’t explode off my groin."

It’s a bonus for the Knicks to get him back in action as they hit the second stop on their four-city trip with a number of players nursing injuries. Immanuel Quickley (hip) and Alec Burks (ankle) were questionable for the game and Frank Ntilikina (knee) was out, joining Obi Toppin and Dennis Smith Jr. as players missing the game.

The Knicks still had managed to even their record at 2-2 with consecutive wins over the Bucks and Cavaliers before facing the surprisingly winless Raptors.

What Rivers has seen is what he expected as he joined the Knicks — a hard-working team in the image of head coach Tom Thibodeau. Rivers had known Thibodeau since he was a child and his father, Doc Rivers, was head coach in Boston, with Thibodeau serving as an assistant.

"We’ve been playing hard," Rivers said. "We play hard. So I’ll be honest, even as an individual, me coming in not having played with them, the one thing I know I have to do [Thursday night] . . . The one thing that has to be consistent is when I’m out there, I’ve got to play hard, because that’s what our team is symbolized as right now.

"We’re one of these teams, there’s not an off night when you play the Knicks. That’s the mindset we’re trying to establish here. I know makes and misses can waver, but your effort can’t. That’s kind of what Thibs has instilled in this team.

"I think it’s the whole ambience of everything Thibs has come with . . . I think there’s been a new life and a new energy here with the team, and it’s really early, so we’ve got a lot of work to do. But wins, losses, makes, misses, that’s part of the game. But our effort and the way we play and approach the game and not making it easy on our opponents is something we try to instill here, and Thibs, obviously being the head of that, has done that.

"I think it’s been a difference because that’s what he demands. There’s no other option. You don’t play hard, you don’t play. That’s just what it is with him.

"I think everybody gets that picture on our team. And I think everybody knows — if you don’t play hard, you're not going to play . . . There’s just some teams that have that identity, and that’s what we’re trying to build here. Thibs is doing a great job and we’re just following that. Everybody’s moving the ball and playing hard, and that’s what it’s going to be."

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