Knicks forward OG Anunoby looks on against the 76ers in...

Knicks forward OG Anunoby looks on against the 76ers in the second half of an NBA game at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Can one player really make this big of a difference?

Even with a small sample size of two drastically different games in three days against the Philadelphia 76ers, it’s hard not to get excited about what the return of OG Anunoby could mean to this Knicks team.

Two nights after an embarrassing 79-73 loss Sunday, the Knicks battered the Sixers Tuesday, 106-79, in a game that marked the return of Anunoby. The Knicks had been without Anunoby for 18 straight games as he recovered from surgery to remove fragments from his elbow, and it’s clear they had definitely missed their defensive specialist.

The Knicks were plus-38 when Anunoby was on the floor Tuesday. What’s more? In the 15 games Anunoby has played for the Knicks since they acquired him in a trade from Toronto in December, they are an unreal plus-280. They have outscored opponents by 25.8 points per 100 possessions with Anunoby on the floor and have a net rating of minus-3.6 points when he sits.

“I thought OG gave us a great lift,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said after Tuesday's win. “For the first time back after a layoff, the energy and just the effort plays, the movement, the shooting added a lot to the team.”

Anunoby, who has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, helped hold 76er Tobias Harris to a season-low two points on 1-for-6 shooting. Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse, who coached Anunoby when they were both in Toronto, said he has the kind of versatility that gives opposing teams fits.

“He’s one of the best defenders that I’ve coached,” said Nurse. “He’ll do different things night-to-night. He'll guard Nikola Jokic one night, Bradley Beal the next and Kawhi Leonard the next. He’s a really good defender.”

Added teammate Isaiah Hartenstein: “You can just put him on whoever. I think that’s the luxury that we have with him.”

It’s that kind of versatility that will certainly be helpful over the next week as the Knicks head out on a tough four-game road trip that includes games against Portland, Sacramento, Golden State and Jokic’s Denver.

It will be a good test for the Knicks, who are in fourth place in the East but just a game ahead of fifth-place Orlando, who host the Nets Wednesday night. After completing their Western trip, the Knicks have four games against lottery teams -- the Nets, Detroit, Toronto and San Antonio – before heading into a pretty tough final stretch of the season.

The problem here is, once you dip below Boston and Milwaukee, the East is so uniformly mediocre that it’s hard to say where exactly you'd want the Knicks to end up finishing.

Right now, you can bet that the Knicks aren’t looking beyond Portland, the one team on this trip that they should be guaranteed to beat. Fans, however, can continue to dream. In the matter of two days, the Knicks have gone from a team that was using smoke and mirrors to hang onto fourth place to one that looks like it could make some noise in the playoffs.

With their win over Philadelphia,  the Knicks became the first team since the 2012 76ers to hold three consecutive opponents to less than 80 points. With a healthy Anunoby rejoining the team, there could be more games like this to come.

For a fanbase that cut its teeth watching the defensive-oriented Knicks of the Pat Riley era, this is the kind of basketball they know how to get excited about. One player can make a big difference.


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