Knicks forward OG Anunoby lines up his shot for a...

Knicks forward OG Anunoby lines up his shot for a three-point basket against the 76ers in the first half of an NBA game at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It might have seemed that the ovation from the Madison Square Garden crowd when OG Anunoby was introduced in the starting lineup was the sign that he was back after six weeks on the sideline, but that really wasn’t it.

It wasn’t even when he hit his first shot of the game, helping the Knicks off to a quick start that they would never relinquish in a wire-to-wire blowout of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Nor was it the emphatic dunk on a pretty feed behind the back from Jalen Brunson on a fast break. If you really wanted to know the moment, it came in the third quarter. Anunoby swiped the ball on an errant pass and raced downcourt for a dunk, going from defense to offense in a complete show of skills.

That play completed a run that turned a 10-point lead into a 28-point advantage, setting off a celebration at the Garden. The Knicks coasted to a 106-79 win and were feeling a little bit closer to whole with Anunoby back.

“It felt great,” said Anunoby, who had his right arm wrapped in ice as a precaution. “It’s been a while. Missed playing here, missed the fans, missed my teammates. So it was a great feeling for sure.”

It was not a one-man show, but a show that one man can make a huge difference as Anunoby (14 points in 29 minutes) fit as seamlessly as he did when he first arrived in New York. Josh Hart posted his fourth triple-double in the last 18 games with 20 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists as his streak of nine straight games of 40-plus minutes ended with a restful 39 minutes. Brunson had 20 points and nine assists.

It marked the third straight game the Knicks held an opponent under 80 points. It was the first time since November, 2000 that the Knicks had done that It was back when Brunson’s father Rick, now a Knicks assistant coach, was playing on the team.

“Obviously a Brunson,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said of the key to it. “The thing is, 20 years ago that really was the style of play. So to be able to do it in today’s game, it’s a credit to the team. And you have to be tied together and you have to be working together and you have to be able to count on each other. And I think that’s the way our team is playing.”

Before the game Hart was asked what, for some, might be a delicate question. With Anunoby back after missing the last 18 games, would he be OK with being pulled from the starting lineup? Would he mind seeing his streak of nine straight 40-minutes or more workload come to an end?

Hart screeched as he ran out of the locker room for his pregame workout, smiling and hitting high notes that could have shattered windows. “Yeah boy, I ain’t expecting a 40 today. So we going to see Anabudoby,” he shouted, using his mocking pronunciation of Anunoby’s name. “Ain’t letting him get out of the game.”

“I’m good with it,” Hart said of being removed from the starting lineup. “I’m good with it, man. Really, I’m at the point where I really don’t care. I just want to win. Whether I play 40 or I play 25, I’m good.”

It wasn’t just Hart who was celebrating a reduced burden on his shoulders. The Knicks have been playing drastically shorthanded with Anunoby, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson all out for an extended period. and Anunoby is the first piece back.

His arrival in a Dec. 30 trade from Toronto, gave the Knicks hope that he was the missing piece to lift them to a different level. The Knicks were 12-2 in the 14 games Anunoby played before he was scratched Jan. 29 while warming up. And on Feb. 8 he underwent a surgical procedure to remove loose bone fragments from his right elbow.

The Knicks were 29-17 at the time he was sidelined and went just 8-10 without him.

“Anabudoby, he back,” Hart said. “Our savior is back. It’ll be good on both sides of the court. Someone who spaces the court with his shooting. Obviously, defensively he’s a juggernaut. Someone that is definitely going to help us on both sides of the ball.”


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