Knicks forward Julius Randle looks on during a timeout against...

Knicks forward Julius Randle looks on during a timeout against the Boston Celtics in the second half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Knicks had their moments Saturday against the Boston Celtics before giving way to an avalanche of second-half three-point field goals. But none might have been more important than the first public viewing of Julius Randle back on the Madison Square Garden court hours before the game.

The game that followed only provided further evidence that any shot the Knicks have of beating the Celtics in particular or advancing far in the postseason rests as much on who wasn’t in the game as who was. The team was still missing Randle, OG Anunoby and Mitchell Robinson.

Anunoby is just a matter of time. He is  finishing up his healing from the surgical procedure that Is expected to allow him to return at 100%. Robinson's timetable is a mystery with his mid-December ankle surgery keeping him off the floor until now. And Randle might present the biggest question of all. He appears closest to a return with workouts like this, but a bit of caution must be added with the possibility still that when contact comes he has not ruled out surgery.

“He and the medical [staff] — he’s working on his conditioning,” coach Tom Thibodeau said before Saturday’s game. “He’s got to meet all the markers. And then he’ll start ramping up with contact and then once he’s cleared, he’s cleared. So you trust that between the medical and the player. So Julius has a say, but the doctors and the medical staff, they’re involved with them, as well.

“The thing is is once he’s cleared medically then you got to start the process of playing. Each day gets better. So you’re doing that, then you have to weigh what’s best for your team. That’s always going to be the priority, but the player’s health is at the forefront. Once he’s cleared, then you take it step by step from there.”

The Knicks certainly see that they need him and Anunoby to compete with the Celtics.  Randle draws defenses and double teams to him, and Anunoby has the defensive prowess to handle the task of guarding Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown.

In losing to Boston for the fourth straight time this season it’s hard to say that the Knicks proved anything, but the Knicks were even with the Celtics early in the second half before Boston connected on 9 of 13 threes in the third quarter, something they are capable of on any night. Randle earlier this week said he’s seen the team hold down the fort and that is a cause for optimism when it becomes whole again.

“It’s who our team is,” Randle said. “Every day Thibs does a good job — a great job — of having us prepared. Everybody, whether you’re getting steady minutes or not. That’s just who our team has been. When guys get their opportunity they’re ready to play. I think if anything it’s brought our team closer together. As guys start to get healthy, we start to build that chemistry back and win games how we were. Guys have been doing a great job of doing the most with what we have and holding that down while we’ve been hurt.”

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