HOUSTON — While the Knicks were able to pull off a trade-deadline maneuver to boost their depth and talent, they found themselves sorely lacking at one particular spot Saturday night — and it clearly led to one of their worst performances of the season.
The Knicks were without their top three centers — Mitchell Robinson, Isaiah Hartenstein and Jericho Sims — as well as Julius Randle, who sometimes is able to shift over to the center spot in a small-ball lineup, and versatile defender OG Anunoby, who also takes over the task of guarding a center at times.
Instead, they were left with 38-year-old Taj Gibson, starting his second 10-day contract, and 6-8 forward Precious Achiuwa to fend off the Pacers’ big men. The result was that the Knicks were outrebounded badly and failed to provide any defensive impediment at the rim in their 125-111 loss.
With two games left before a much-needed All-Star break — more for rehab than beach time — the Knicks are just trying to survive until the reinforcements are back.
Robinson still is not close — he is expected to begin on-court work after the break — after undergoing ankle surgery. Hartenstein, who has excelled in his place, needs to rest a sore Achilles that sidelined him for two games in January and Saturday night’s game. Sims, who has missed the last three games with an illness, traveled with the team Sunday and could be in the lineup when the Knicks take on the Rockets on Monday.
So is that enough to get through the games before the break for a coach who treasures a defensive rim protector?
“Our margin of error is small right now,” Tom Thibodeau said after Saturday’s game. “So we have to play extremely hard, tough, smart, and even at the end, we were probably a possession or two of having a chance.
“The thing that I love about our team is there’s no quit in us. They’ll continue to fight. Some nights it’s not as good as we would like, but for the most part, this team gives you everything they have every single game.
“I just deal with reality. This is what we have and I think we can win with what we have. So that’s all I think about. Get in there and get it done. There’s no moral victories. Get out there and get it done. If you’re here and you’re on this roster, that means you’re a hell of a player and we can win.”
The Knicks do have options. With two open roster spots, they could sign someone to provide a big body in the paint. Former Knick Robin Lopez was bought out by the Kings after being traded Thursday, and former Knick Nerlens Noel and Khem Birch remain unsigned. But if Sims is back and the team believes that Hartenstein’s injury is a short-term issue, they could get through to the break and move on from there.
“Just playing hard” was the solution put forth by Josh Hart, who, at 6-4, led the Knicks in rebounding with 10 Saturday. “I mean, obviously, we’re down bodies but we’ve got to find a way to piece together wins. We’ve got two before All-Star and then hopefully we’ll get guys back. So we’ve just got to figure it out.”