Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) reacts to a call during...

Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) reacts to a call during overtime in an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs in San Antonio, Friday, March 29, 2024. Credit: AP/Eric Gay

As the Knicks returned to Madison Square Garden Sunday to face the challenge of the Oklahoma City Thunder, they did it taking another step backward in their efforts to return to a full squad with the playoffs approaching.

And that meant another day of relying on Jalen Brunson to carry them on his shoulders again.

It’s a plan that has worked more often than it hasn’t as the Knicks took a 44-29 record into Sunday’s game. They are trying to jockey for playoff positioning with an eye on the second seed in the East despite missing their starting front line for months now.

And for the second time, one of the injured pieces returned only to head to the sideline again. This time it was Mitchell Robinson, who missed 50 games after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured left ankle. Robinson played two games before tweaking the ankle again Friday in San Antonio and being ruled out with what the team called a sprained left ankle.

“He just tweaked it,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We’ll see where he is tomorrow.”

Robinson was not available to talk about it Sunday, but after Friday’s game, he said, “Kind of landed a little funny, but I’m straight.”

Previously it was OG Anunoby who returned to action after an 18-game absence, lasted three games and then was shut down again. Sunday marked his seventh straight game of absence. Despite having had surgery to repair a loose bone fragment in his right elbow and being healed up already, Anunoby was experiencing soreness.

Asked if the team has started to consider the possibility of Anunoby missing the remainder of the season, Thibodeau said, “We just deal with reality, day to day. When he’s strong enough, he gets out there.”

Anunoby has yet to take any contact since shutting down again after the Sacramento game on March 16. Julius Randle was on the court again before the start of Sunday’s game shooting and working on his conditioning — but still has yet to take contact to test his dislocated right shoulder in a game.

“Just keep doing what he’s doing, day to day,” Thibodeau said. “You never know when it turns. That’s basically the approach we take. Rehab is really your game, so put everything you have into that. And eventually you’ll get there. You can’t get discouraged. Just keep working at it. The other guys, they have a job to do.”

So that left Brunson to lead the way again — with at least one bit of encouraging news as Isaiah Hartenstein was available to play after suffering a sprained right wrist Friday against the Spurs. But that night it was Brunson who had to pull the Knicks along to overtime before they finally fell as he poured in 61 points. It is the second-highest single-game performance in Knicks history behind only Carmelo Anthony’s 62 in 2014.

“Every good team has a guy like that,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. “That’s why they’re good. And he’s certainly a handful. He’s so crafty. He’s got answers for everything. He’s played at this size his entire life and has a solution for literally everything. You can’t cheat against him. You’ve got to be really solid on him. You’ve got to do it as a team. He’s obviously the head of the snake. He’s got total control of the game. Tough shotmaker, gets fouled. Does all the stuff that the great players do. He’s a great player.”

But while Brunson has begun to enter the Most Valuable Player conversation, the Thunder boast an MVP candidate, too, in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Gilgeous-Alexander missed the previous two games, but was upgraded and available against the Knicks.

“Yeah, he’s having a monster season for them,” Thibodeau said. “The skill level of their players is very high. They have a number of guys that can lead the break, can push the ball. They have good vision, they play hard, they play unselfishly.

“They’re well-balanced. They’re strong offensively, strong defensively. They play fast, they can turn you over. Jalen Williams is tough to deal with. [Lu] Dort is a heck of a defensive player, but he’s improved vastly offensively. I think [Chet] Holmgren gives them that presence at the center position. Their bench is very active. [Josh] Giddey is playing at a high level right now, they have a lot of weapons.”


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months