Knicks guard Kemba Walker reacts with Mitchell Robinson during the...

Knicks guard Kemba Walker reacts with Mitchell Robinson during the second half of an NBA game against the Hawks on Saturday. Credit: AP/Adam Hunger

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Timberwolves could be forgiven for not quite knowing what to expect from their team, having just met some of their key contributors a day earlier and finding new roles for the severely-shorthanded squad.

The Knicks on the other hand may have been just as confused about what they saw Tuesday from their own team, with none of the excuses afforded the Timberwolves. With nearly their whole squad in place the Knicks struggled through confounding spells of dysfunction before managing to secure a 96-88 win over the Timberwolves at the Target Center.

Is Julius Randle still the All-NBA talent who led the team a year ago or a player who was out hustled and outplayed by Jaden McDaniels as he endured a 5-for-20 shooting night while putting up 13 points and 15 rebounds? Is RJ Barrett still feeling the effects of his six-game absence from COVID-19 protocols or simply struggling in one of his shooting slumps? And are the Knicks a team poised to take advantage of a soft part of the schedule or a sub-. 500 team bound for the lottery?

After a night like this they were content to get out of town with a win.

"That’s what you have to do," Tom Thibodeau said. "Right now it’s choppy. You’ve got guys in and out. But I loved — I thought our defense was really good. They put a lot of pressure on you with the way they can get into the paint and then spray it out, create threes. So you have to do more than one thing. You have to challenge shots. But the rebounding I thought was a big key for us."

About the only sure thing for the Knicks were dunks by Mitchell Robinson as he connected on 7 of 8, finishing with 14 points and 18 rebounds. As a team they shot just 37.5% from the free-throw line.

"We’re mixing and matching," Thibodeau said. "Guys playing real big minutes, going from the bench to the starting lineup. I thought [[at] the start of the season the bench played really well together. It was big plus for us. But when you move those guys, their chemistry changes. We’re getting more and more information."

The Timberwolves were still without their three biggest stars — Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell — as their long list of players in protocols began to dwindle, turning a workable number of recognizable players back onto the active roster.

But even when players return it remains a work in progress after spending time isolated in quarantine. It is why players cleared from protocols don’t necessarily find themselves back in the form that they were when they were sidelined.

"The first step is the safety comes first," Thibodeau said. "You follow the protocol given by the league and the team. Each case is different. Each guy gets hit harder than others. They could do some conditioning. No matter what conditioning you’re doing it’s not close to playing in an NBA game.

"When you get him back you want to see what he looks like in practice. And then go from there. There’s going to be some rust. Obviously, you’re not shooting the ball or taking contact on. It doesn’t take much to throw a player out of rhythm. You take it day by day, step by step and do the best you can."

Barrett returned on Christmas Day — one game after being cleared but kept on the sidelines — and shot 4-for-15. That seemed like a hot night compared to what he endured this time. Through three quarters, Barrett was scoreless, missing all seven of his attempts, including three beyond the arc, finishing with eight points down the stretch.

"He made big plays for us down the stretch and that’s what I liked," Thibodeau said. "He didn’t force and then he found a rhythm right at the end of the game. I thought he read the game really well down the stretch. That’s the big thing. He wasn’t scoring, but he was impacting the game. He was trying to play great defense and then he found his way."

Barrett entered the game with 6:44 to play and connected on a tough drive with 5:49 left for his first points of the night, drawing a foul and missing the free throw as the Knicks led 85-79. Minnesota still trailed by just five with less than two minutes left, but Malik Beasley air-balled a three-point attempt and when Kemba Walker missed on a floater, he grabbed the loose ball and found Barrett for a layup with 1:12 left, upping the lead to 92-85. Walker added a free throw, but when he missed the second, Randle got the rebound and attempted to go up in traffic and had the shot blocked for a jump ball. But Minnesota just could not finish the comeback.

The Knicks opened up a 17-point lead early in the second quarter with a 10-0 run. But Minnesota steadily chipped away, closing the gap to just three at the half and they managed to take a one-point lead early in the second half. Thibodeau constantly preaches connectivity and communication as defensive principles but the Timberwolves, with the experience of a team meeting up at a playground, managed to stymie the Knicks offense.