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Tom Thibodeau believes Mitchell Robinson could return in Knicks' preseason finale

The Knicks' Mitchell Robinson dunks during the second

The Knicks' Mitchell Robinson dunks during the second half against the Celtics on Jan. 17, 2021 in Boston. Credit: AP/Michael Dwyer

When Tom Thibodeau went through the list of injuries for Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Pistons he dropped a bigger bit of news by speculating on Friday’s lineup and just who could be ready for that final preseason game.

While Mitchell Robinson has been sidelined since suffering a broken right foot March 27 in Milwaukee and even in training camp he spent much of the time working on his own while the team moved forward. But Thibodeau said that Robinson has returned to full contact and with one more practice could be ready to make his game debut Friday against Indiana.

"Yeah, he’s fully engaged now," Thibodeau said. "We feel like one more practice he’ll be good . . . Every day there's more contact. There's more that he's doing, and then you want to see how he responds the next day, and there's still the conditioning element of it. He's done a lot. He's come back every night. He's put in a lot of extra work. We feel good about where he is."

Without Robinson again Wednesday, the Knicks remained unbeaten, topping the Pistons, 108-100, behind 29 points and 11 rebounds from Julius Randle and a 21-point effort from Taj Gibson.

If getting a full lineup back is a goal for next Wednesday’s season opener, so too is setting a tone, and the Knicks did that, inserting the starters back in a tight game midway through the fourth quarter and playing with the intensity of a playoff game down the stretch.

In Thibodeau’s first season with the Knicks Robinson was an observer for much of it as the franchise turned its fortunes around. He played in just 31 games, suffering a broken hand on February 12 which sidelined him for 15 games. He returned to action and lasted just four games before suffering the foot injury that put him out of action for the remainder of the season.

He spent the offseason in New York part of the time and the rest in Louisiana. Wherever he was he worked on what he could, strength training, ball handling, form shooting and watching film. Thibodeau said that when Robinson was in Louisiana the team had a trainer and coach with him.

"I think going through a rehab like he’s going through, it’s important for us to be heavily involved," Thibodeau said. "And he’s responded . . . It’s not easy to go through a long rehab. That was the one thing that Derrick [Rose] did before, for three consecutive years. So I know the challenges that go along with that.

"There’s a physical challenge. There’s also a mental challenge. You’re away from your teammates. That’s not an easy thing to do. So we wanted to make sure he got through that. Aaron Brooks was with him a lot, Kenny Payne has been with him. The whole staff was involved with him. And he’s really grown. Not only the physical part but who he is; he’s much more confident. I think he has a great understanding now of the league, what goes into it. So we’re anxious to get him back out there."

The Knicks managed without Robinson last year thanks to the play of Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson, but Thibodeau said that he thinks the return of Robinson is important to the team’s hopes.

"He’s a unique player, the things that he brings to our team — and it’s not just on the defensive end," Thibodeau said "The defensive end, I think we all know he’s an elite rim-protector. He makes people miss inside. He can cover a lot of ground. He can cover up mistakes. But offensively, he adds a lot to our team as well, just putting the pressure on the rim. And you throw the ball anywhere up near the rim, he has great hands. He’ll go get it. He’s very good at dribble-handoffs, that sort of thing, so we miss him offensively, too."

Notes & quotes: Kemba Walker was held out for what the team termed rest. Thibodeau said, "Just more rest than anything else. This time keying up everyone is nicked up, we just want to make sure everyone’s ready to go first game." … Nerlens Noel was also held out for the third straight preseason game with what he called a hamstring issue.

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