Knicks center Mitchell Robinson reacts after sinking a basket against...

Knicks center Mitchell Robinson reacts after sinking a basket against the Celtics during the first half of an NBA game at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When Mitchell Robinson got the go-ahead to play in the final preseason game, it was an unexpected surprise for the Knicks. And it turned out to be a fortuitous early return from his rehab for a broken right foot, because the Knicks needed him in the starting lineup for their season opener against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night.

The Knicks' hopes for this season have rested on the same sort of good fortune as last season, when they were able to keep most of the team injury-free and safe from the coronavirus shutdowns that other teams struggled through. But as they readied for the Celtics, they found themselves shorthanded already.

Nerlens Noel did not play at all in the preseason and remained sidelined Wednesday night with what the team is calling knee soreness, and Taj Gibson missed the game for what Tom Thibodeau called "good personal reasons." A source confirmed that Gibson was out because of the birth of his child.

That put Robinson in the starting lineup, and he pulled down 17 rebounds in 34:28 in the Knicks' 138-134 double-overtime victory over the Celtics at Madison Square Garden. He had 11 points and shot 5-for-5 from the field.

"We’ll see how it unfolds," Thibodeau said before the game of Robinson, who played more than 26 minutes in the final preseason game. "There’s different stages you go through. Fall practice, workouts. Then you have preseason, that’s a different intensity level. Now you get to the regular season, the intensity level will be different. He’s put a lot of extra time in. It’s a work in progress. We’ll see where he is when he’s out there.

"We’ve been pleasantly surprised with the way he handled those minutes. He comes back for a second session every night. So he’s putting the work in. And he just has to work his way through it. We want him to play hard. That’s the big thing. We don’t want him resting out there. We’ll see. The only way you can do it is to go through it. He handles those minutes really well and we’ll see how it unfolds tonight."

Robinson was the Knicks' starting center last season before suffering a broken hand and then a broken foot. He played only 31 games.

After playing in the final preseason game, he said, "Overall, I feel great. Just have to work on my finishing, you know, getting my touch back and my conditioning is the main thing. I feel like when I can get my conditioning back to where I can play all day . . . I will be all right."

The important thing for Robinson is that he said he was playing with no fear of injuring the foot again, a risk for a 7-1 center who put on weight this summer by spending time in the weight room.

"It feels great," Robinson said last week. "I don’t have to worry about it no more. It's fully healed. I can just go out there and play now. I don’t have to worry about if something happens . . . this and that. I can just go out there and play."

Rookie Jericho Sims saw action in the preseason after joining the Knicks as a second-round pick. He played 6:58 on Wednesday night.

"We need everyone," Thibodeau said. "We’ve talked about this all year. That’s why the approach is so important, attitude and approach, readiness. You never know when you’ll be called upon. The benefit of the preseason was we had Nerlens out so Jericho was able to get some minutes. Mitch was out early on, obviously. Then we also had the opportunity to look at Obi [Toppin] and Julius [Randle] together as well. So we’ll see how it unfolds. We’ll see what the matchups are on the floor, whether they’re big or small. That’ll base some of the stuff that we’ll do as well."