Nuggets center Nikola Jokic shoots over Timberwolves center Luka Garza...

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic shoots over Timberwolves center Luka Garza during the first half of an NBA game Tuesday in Minneapolis. Credit: AP/Abbie Parr

DENVER — With the news that Mitchell Robinson has returned to practice and is moving closer to helping the Knicks become complete, the obvious thought was “why couldn’t it be now?’’ as they readied to face the Nuggets and the best big man in the NBA, Nikola Jokic.

When the Knicks imagine what they can be if they can get the team healthy and whole, they can point to the previous meeting with Denver on Jan. 25 at Madison Square Garden. Even though they didn’t have Robinson, they did have OG Anunoby and Julius Randle, and they ran the defending champion Nuggets out of the gym with a 122-84 win.

Aiming for a 4-0 road trip, the Knicks didn’t have any of those three frontcourt players available Thursday night, meaning the task of beating Denver and slowing Jokic was an imposing one. Asked how the Knicks could stop Jokic, Josh Hart answered honestly.

“Pray,” he said. “He’s someone you can’t really speed up. He’s just one of those guys you can’t speed up. You play tough defense. He throws up some majestic 35-footer and somehow makes it. It’s just one of those guys where it’s tough to slow him down and influence him. Obviously, we just have to be physical and have great ball pressure on him. Then pray.”

Although the Knicks had Randle and Anunoby in the previous meeting with Denver, they didn’t have Robinson or Isaiah Hartensten and started Jericho Sims. But no one really matches up with two-time MVP Jokic, one of the most talented — and most unusual — players in the NBA.

“Definitely does not look like an athlete,” Hart said. “Just goes out there and goes for 26, 15 and 10 efficiently. Plays the game the right way. He’s not overly concerned with scoring or getting the assist or anything. He just plays the game the right way. It’s tough to play against a player like that. But as a basketball fan, you like being able to watch him.”

“Obviously, he’s an MVP, special player, defending champ,” Deuce McBride said. “So what he does is special. Obviously, we have a plan for him defensively, so we’re just going to try to execute that.”

The task certainly wasn’t an easy one, but the Knicks were more concerned with the bigger picture. They continue to get healthier and positioned for the postseason, entering Thursday’s game only 1 1⁄2 games behind the third-place Cavaliers and 2 1⁄2 games behind the second-place Bucks in the Eastern Conference.

“You want to get as high [in the standings] as you can,'' Hart said. "Obviously that’s in reach. But at the end of the day, Cleveland could lose every single game and it doesn’t mean anything. We’ve got to take care of business . . . If they lose every single game and we lose every single game, you know. We can’t be overly concerned about that. We’ve just got to make sure we play well, we put together wins, get healthy and go into the playoffs as strong as we can.”


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