Before boarding the flight to frigid Minnesota, the Knicks convened for practice at their Greenburgh training center Monday — one at a time.
The NBA’s rules on health and safety protocols limited them to one-on-one workout sessions, a player matched with a coach. But they boarded the flight with what amounts to a relatively healthy squad these days — missing only three players to the COVID-19 protocols. They departed with their opening night starting lineup intact.
Awaiting them are the Timberwolves, who have seven players on the COVID list, including Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards. Two Timberwolves — Patrick Beverley and Josh Okogie — are back with the team, and Okogie returned to action in Minnesota’s 108-103 victory over the visiting Celtics on Monday ahead of the Knicks’ arrival on Tuesday.
The Knicks will continue on to Detroit, which has seven players sidelined by the protocols, and then visit the Oklahoma City Thunder — one of the few teams with no players sidelined by testing. They will finish the trip in Toronto, where the Raptors put a team on the floor Saturday in Cleveland that was missing 10 players, including their top seven scorers.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, speaking on ESPN last week, said there were no plans to pause the season. The league will push forward with teams stocking their rosters with 10-day hardship exception contracts.
"The rules are changing, the protocols are changing so fast," Timberwolves coach Chris Finch told reporters. "For us to think that it’s going to be as it is now in three or four days’ time would probably be unrealistic. We’ll have to wait and see what that landscape looks like."
The Knicks have begun to see their own missing pieces trickle back to the active list. With RJ Barrett and Quentin Grimes back in action on Christmas Day and Immanuel Quickley and Kevin Knox cleared from protocols and working their way back into playing shape, they are missing only three players to COVID protocols. Nerlens Noel and rookies Miles McBride and Jericho Sims remain out.
While the Knicks are trying to work their own pieces into place, they have been aided by the return to the lineup of Kemba Walker, winning two of their last three games. Walker has averaged 26.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.0 turnover in 40:10 in the last four games.
"Well, I think he’s much more aggressive," coach Tom Thibodeau said after Saturday’s win. "And that was the challenge I think the beginning of the year basically, adding he and Evan [Fournier] to new starters. And basically you could add in [Mitchell Robinson] with that as well. And then sometimes guys are trying to fit in.
"He’s been very aggressive, which is the way we want him to play, so he’s not deferring at all. And he’s been around a long time. Let the game tell you what to do. When he’s aggressive like that, Julius [Randle] is aggressive and our team is different. And so that’s the way we know we have to play. And right now we’re shorthanded still, and we got to play [our] hardest, and if we do that, we can be a good team."