It was about 90 minutes before game time and Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau was asked a simple question. Who is starting in the nationally-televised game against Golden State?
"I haven’t decided," Thibodeau said with a smile. And it’s not unusual for him to hold his cards close to his vest, seeking any sort of advantage, even the slightest edge he can get.
But on this night maybe he wasn’t wrong. Saturday the Knicks revealed that Obi Toppin was placed in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Sunday morning RJ Barrett joined him on the COVID-19 list. And Tuesday morning, it was Quentin Grimes sidelined, Grimes had just gotten his first career start in place of Barrett.
For a team that has been in freefall lately, losing six of their last seven games entering Tuesday, Thibodeau is searching for some sort of continuity and stability. And unlike last season when the Knicks were able to dodge these sorts of situations, right now it is a scramble every day to figure out who is available. Even Knicks legend and the tam’s long-time color analyst on MSG Network, Walt Frazier, has been placed in health and safety protocols.
"I think we’re all hopeful it was getting better," Thibodeau said of the COVID struggles that shut down the NBA two seasons ago and then had teams playing in empty arenas for much of last season. "You’re watching it. Our medical staff has been fantastic. They’ve been talking to us all year about don’t let your guard down, there’s more coming. You try to take every precaution possible with the masks, six feet apart, all that stuff. But it is what it is and we all have to deal with it.
"Everyone has to do the best they can with it. You trust the medical people. You trust the league to do all that they’re doing, the testing. All the stuff, you’re taking every precaution possible. You obviously hope for the best."
On this night the Knicks at least got back Alec Burks, who missed Sunday’s game against Milwaukee for the birth of his son. He was back in the starting lineup along with Derrick Rose, who started in place of Burks Sunday, and Evan Fournier, Julius Randle and Nerlens Noel.
Last season while many teams went through periods with games and practices shut down with multiple positive tests or close contacts, the Knicks never had two players missing at one time. Burks and Rose were the only players to test positive last season and Frank Ntilikina was briefly quarantined for a close contact.
This season close contacts don’t have to quarantine as long as they don’t test positive if they are vaccinated. The Knicks are fully vaccinated. A source said that most, but not all, of the players have had booster shotss
Golden State arrived at the Garden with the sort of success batting the shutdowns that the Knicks had last season. While preparing to face a team like the Knicks with little idea exactly who will be playing for them, Golden State coach Steve Kerr wasn’t complaining.
"It’s a lot easier than preparing if you don’t know who your own guys are going to be every night," Kerr said. "We’ve been very lucky, knock on wood, from a health standpoint, knowing who’s going to be out there most night it’s been helpful."
Kerr could empathize with what Thibodeau is going through.
"Obviously, missing a bunch of guys it’s been a tough stretch just continuity-wise, it seems like for them with changing lineups," Kerr said. "But we’re expecting their best shot tonight."
"I think it’s a challenge of our whole league," Thibodeau said. "It’s how quickly can you adapt? And it’s constant change. That’s what you have to do. You have different combinations but you have a lot of guys who weren’t in the rotation that have been preparing for their opportunity. Obviously, Quentin took advantage and played very well. Now he’s out. I thought Kevin gave us good minutes. We have to keep going. No one’s feeling sorry for you. So different teams go through it at different times. That’s where we are and we’re going through it right now. We have to be mentally tough and we have to fight through this."