Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts as he coaches against...

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts as he coaches against the Hawks during the first quarter at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Credit: Brad Penner

With all of the statistical minutiae available these days through tracking data, it is time for a deep dive into just how the Knicks have performed when they have what you would consider their complete starting five together.

And after extensive research, you can just insert blank space here.

Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, OG Anunoby, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson have played exactly zero seconds together this season. But with 19 games remaining, the Knicks can see the light. It’s not just the end of the regular season, but a return to health. Actually, not a return, given that they’ve never actually been whole.

“As you move forward, you need everyone,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Ideally you have everyone. That’s the goal. If you have a full roster, you’re asking guys to sacrifice. We’ve asked that all year. That doesn’t change. Put the team first. That doesn’t mean you’re less valuable to us. Everybody on the roster is valuable to the team.”

And in that, Thibodeau glossed over the puzzle he will face: how to piece together a playoff rotation if all of the pieces of the roster are at his disposal.

This season, he has patched together a lineup nightly with duct tape, inserting bench pieces into the starting lineup and pulling from the fringes of the roster to get key contributions in unlikely places. But if he has them all, how does he make it work?

Who starts?

Thibodeau has long countered this question by emphasizing the importance of finishing over starting, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have tough choices. Anunoby seems ready to return to the lineup this week, and with a 12-2 record in his 14 games in the starting lineup after the trade that brought him from Toronto, he is a key to what they do. But in his spot has been Josh Hart, who has gone from sixth man to a key starter. Does he sit or does Thibodeau move Precious Achiuwa — who had 15 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots Friday — out? Oh, and Randle is on the way back, too, which means both likely will go to the second unit.

About that second unit

Thibodeau has made it clear during his coaching career that he finds a nine-man rotation the maximum he wants to utilize. On some nights — a playoff game, for example — eight is enough.

So if Robinson returns, too, and inherits his starting center spot, you do the math. Hart is a sure thing to be used in large doses; he’s topped 40 minutes in each of the last eight games. Isaiah Hartenstein has excelled as a starter in place of Robinson and Thibodeau craves the rim protection he and Robinson provide. Deuce McBride has proved his value. He’s able to play in place of Brunson and alongside him with his 40.6% three-point shooting. Now, for the ninth spot, is it Achiuwa? Bogan Bogdanovic? Alec Burks? Shake Milton? Jericho Sims? That’s a lot of players competing for very few minutes.

Some of these questions may be eased by the need to proceed cautiously with healing players. Hartenstein has had his minutes reduced drastically as he has worked through an Achilles injury. Robinson might need to be limited if he returns from ankle surgery. And Randle is at risk for a reoccurrence of injury as he has worked his way through recovery from a dislocated shoulder without surgery.

The construction of the roster has been able to accommodate these concerns with no outward rebellion — although there were whispers from the camps of Quentin Grimes and even Immanuel Quickley before they were traded that they knew they deserved more. But the Knicks have crafted a roster that practices hard to the 15th man and accepts what they get. What’s most important is that they’re ready when the circumstances change.

“It says a lot about the culture,” Hartenstein said. “I think we’re building a good culture here and that’s also important, just making sure guys are always ready. I think people don’t get how difficult it is to stay ready. A great example is Deuce, come in and play 47 minutes. Your body has to be able to be ready for that. I think that’s just a staple to the organization.”

Aggressive defense

When the Knicks held the Orlando Magic to 74 points Friday night, it marked the fewest points allowed in any game since 2020 and the fewest by the Knicks since 2012.
So how did this happen in an NBA climate in which scoring has jumped like a video game, with teams regularly doubling that total?
“We were just really aggressive, on the ball, off the ball, rotations,” Hart said, “We were just really in sync, very active in our shell. We did that and we were able to get out and run a little bit.”
“The thing is, we talked about being shorthanded right now,” Thibodeau said. “We have to do it with our defense and our rebounding and keeping turnovers down. So when we fly around and work together like that and we have the type of activity like we did, it gives us a chance to win. We have to play hard on every possession.”

Dangerous territory

The NBA, like every other sport, has jumped headfirst into the huge dollars that legalized sports gambling has provided. The league has partnered with betting sites, and even the NBA Players Association has a deal for name and likeness with FanDuel. So it’s no surprise that every controversial ending seems to bring with it whispers of scandal from fans and off-the-record speculation from team sources.
And then there is Rudy Gobert, who has openly spoken about it — most recently this past week after he was called for a technical foul in the closing seconds of regulation in Minnesota’s overtime loss to Cleveland. It allowed the Cavaliers to pull even.
“I made some mistakes,” Gobert told reporters. “I air-balled a dunk. Mistakes happen. Referees make mistakes, too. But sometimes I think it’s more than mistakes. I think everyone that’s in this league knows. I think it’s got to get better. I think it’s hurting our game. I know the betting and all that is becoming bigger and bigger, but it shouldn’t feel that way.”
The NBA officials are trained and work meticulously as a three-person unit, trying to handle a game played at a speed that is hard to track. It’s a thankless job. But adding betting to the mix raises doubts and anger to a new level when something like the Knicks’ last-second loss in Houston happens. It’s a slippery slope the league has engaged in and one that doesn’t have an easy solution.


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