Knicks guard Josh Hart looks to pass while covered by...

Knicks guard Josh Hart looks to pass while covered by Boston Celtics guard Derrick White (9) and center Kristaps Porzingis (8) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Oct. 13, 2023, in Boston. Credit: AP/Charles Krupa

Josh Hart sat in his cubicle for a long time after the game was over, after most of his teammates had made their way out of TD Garden. With the Knicks spending the night in town before flying to Atlanta Tuesday, Hart talked about recovery techniques, an ice bath not enough after logging 43 minutes trying to chase Jayson Tatum and the Celtics around the floor.

But Hart was thinking about a bigger picture. The Knicks had fallen short Monday night, dropping a 114-98 decision to Boston. And under the best of circumstances that might have been the result, with the Celtics still the measuring stick in the Eastern Conference for the Knicks and every other team.

The Knicks have not had the best of circumstances though. Through 10 games they have played three sets of back-to-back games, five of the 10 games on the road and Monday was the third game they had been without RJ Barrett, who has been their steadiest player through this early stretch of the season. And this was just the first stop on a five-game road trip zigzagging them up and down the East Coast before finishing in Minnesota.

The physical toll was evident and, for the Knicks, there is always a bit of mental anguish to contend with, too. They have made little secret of their willingness to chase another piece to lift the franchise to the next level and when reports surfaced Tuesday of the long-rumored possibility of the Chicago Bulls moving Zach LaVine, it sent social media into a frenzy.

But the Knicks path right now is not likely to include a deal for LaVine. In the second year of a five-year, $215 million contract and more a scorer than a shooter, he is not the sort of fit next to Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle that would move the needle — particularly if the Bulls asking price is, as expected, high. Would it make sense for the Knicks to move the 23-year-old RJ Barrett in a deal for the 28-year-old, much more expensive and injury-prone LaVine? Not likely, with the team patiently walking away from the table two summers ago when the price for Donovan Mitchell was too high. But still, it just seemed another obstacle for the Knicks to navigate in this early season.

“I’m not sure who we made mad, but we sincerely apologize, because [expletive], this has definitely been one of the wilder, tougher beginnings to a season I’ve seen in my seven years,” Hart said. “Pass the test. We’re not going to make excuses. We’ve got to keep it moving. We’re 5-5 now, we’ve got to find a way to win games whether that’s on back-to-backs or having tough opponents, whatever. Win games, rest our bodies when we can and keep it moving.”

That is the message that Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has imparted on his team, insisting that the tough schedule is an early test and challenge for the team to see just how they have to respond. His constant talk of the roster having more than enough comes with a disclaimer that help would be welcome, but it needs to be the right kind of player — defensive-minded, willing to fit in with the pieces already assembled.

“The games keep coming,” Thibodeau said before this trip began. “So you can’t exhale. You can’t relax. You can’t let your guard down. We’re being tested in a really good way. I like that our schedule is tough and has been tough. It tells us exactly where we are, tells us exactly what we have to work on. And if we’re doing the right things, the results will end up being good.”

The first step for the Knicks will be getting Barrett back, which they hope comes Wednesday night. He was a late scratch Monday, suffering from a migraine. He attempted to join the team, but was sent back to the hotel as the game began. Barrett missed two games earlier in the season and the Knicks are now 0-3 without Barrett.

The Knicks beat the Hawks, coincidentally after a loss to Boston, in Atlanta earlier this season.

“It’s tough but you can only take things a game at a time,” Julius Randle said. “We’ll be fine. We’re built for it. We’ve got guys who are workers, who are warriors. In the end it’ll always balance out and we’ll be fine.”

NOTES & QUOTES: Atlanta’s Trae Young sat out Tuesday night’s game against the Pistons after his wife gave birth to a daughter Monday.


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