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Knicks finally playing game that counts after pandemic-forced shutdown

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the second

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the second half of the team's NBA preseason game against the Pistons on Dec. 11, 2020, in Detroit. Credit: AP/Carlos Osorio

While the rest of the NBA was coming to terms with the sudden announcement that the season was being suspended on the night of March 11 the Knicks were still on the floor, dragged into overtime of a meaningless game in Atlanta, the last two teams left on the court.

But as 22 teams resumed the season months later the Knicks remained idle as far as playing but did make moves, shifting direction with a new coach, two first-round draft picks and a new assortment of short-term placeholders in free agency. Finally, more than nine months after shutting down, the Knicks will play their first regular-season game Wednesday night in Indiana.

They are back, but just how different they will be remains to be seen. Tom Thibodeau provides them with a high-level head coach. But if you consider the roster the Knicks started last season with and the one they have now it’s hard to see a huge upgrade — having lost Marcus Morris and gained Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley, subtracting Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis and inserting Nerlens Noel and Austin Rivers.

A 3-1 preseason in which the defense looked to show hints of a Thibodeau team, but the reality is that the talent is a level below nearly every team and Thibodeau has had an abbreviated opportunity to put his imprint on this group.

"Everybody is talking about the difference because it’s real," Toppin said of the preseason versus regular season. "My coach at Dayton used to put it in terms of the preseason games were rubber bullets. When you get into the real games that count, those are real bullets. We’re jumping into the fire. It’s a quick turnaround, not one everyone is used to. But I always said this opportunity for me to be in this position is a blessing. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’m super excited."

The excitement to be back on the court is understandable after the long layoff. And optimism always is in place through training camp when everyone is starting at 0-0. But the reality, too, is out there, that the Knicks came up empty in their annual star search and are depending on Thibodeau to make this group into something that as a whole is greater than the parts.

For Thibodeau, it is a delicate balance, straddling a win-now mentality with a group that must be developed — whether that development is for the Knicks’ future or as trade bait.

"It’s great. It’s what you miss when you’re away," he said of the opportunity to get started. "Obviously, having time away gives you an opportunity to do different things, to travel and visit with friends, family, and you don’t have a set schedule.

"But after a while, what you do miss is you miss the competition. You miss the camaraderie and trying to solve the problems of what a team is going through and the challenge of an NBA season. So to be back, I’m excited about that. I think opening night for everyone is exciting and it’s just the beginning. It’s a long season and you want to focus on improvement, doing all the things that make this such a great sport."

He wasn’t giving away his starting lineup, but even after hinting that Quickley was under consideration for the point guard spot, Thibodeau went out of his way Tuesday to praise the veteran leadership of Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Alec Burks and Reggie Bullock. After a year away, he is excited, but one would imagine also cautious enough to use the rookies judiciously.

"We actually meet every day about rotation and it’s pretty tight," Thibodeau said. "It’ll sort itself out as we go along. But you have to base it on performance and merit, what guys have done. We have a pretty good idea of who the 10 are, and then the question will become who do we start. There are a couple of positions that are basically 50-50 type of positions. So we’re still evaluating that."

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