Logic tells you that this is going to catch up to the Knicks eventually. So does simple arithmetic. And if they needed a hint as to how fragile and fleeting this can all be, all they needed to do Tuesday night was have a gander at the lineup the other team at Madison Square Garden rolled out onto the floor.
Memphis won 51 games last year. Everyone knew the Grizzlies would struggle early this year with Ja Morant serving a disciplinary suspension, but it figured to get better once he returned. Except that return lasted all of nine games. And the other four members of the Grizz’ projected starting lineup were also absent Tuesday.
At times, it was hard to watch as the Knicks barely broke a sweat in piling up a 28-point lead. And then, for a short but more telling time, it was really hard to watch as the Grizzlies went on an 18-1 run and shaved the Knicks lead to four.
And by then, it had gotten downright difficult to watch at all.
Because by then Jalen Brunson’s ankle had bent in a way that a human ankle is not supposed to be bent, by then Josh Hart’s knee had started to bark at him. And by then, there was no need for Memphis to serve as a helpful cautionary tale for worst-case scenarios; the Knicks were building their own quite nicely by themselves.
The Knicks won the game, 123-113, but as has been the case across most of this user-friendly Garden-heavy stretch of the schedule, as the wins keep piling up so do the items littering the Knicks’ anxiety closet. They were already absent three-fifths of their starting lineup (Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle, OG Anunoby). They were already absent Quentin Grimes, and even Jericho Sims was scratched.
Then, within 90 seconds of each other, as they were fending off an improbable rally by the suddenly scorching Grizzlies, Brunson’s ankle went thisaway and Hart’s knee went thataway. Hart stayed in the game. Brunson did not, and in fact left the bench for the game’s final 5 ½ minutes.
The pall that fell upon the 19,013 at the Garden was tense and it was familiar, not unlike when Julius Randle’s shoulder went crooked 10 days earlier against Miami, not unlike the buzz that is beginning to build with each passing game that finds Anunoby on the bench in civvies. And not unlike that which will now undoubtedly shadow Brunson and Hart — mainly Brunson — for the next few days.
Brunson was reported to have walked out of the arena Tuesday night without the aid of crutches or a walking boot, which is a hopeful sign. He did seem to be walking “gingerly,” according to one observer, which is not surprising given the frightening way he landed on his foot.
“Same as always,” was Tom Thibodeau’s predictable take on the possibility of losing still more essential members of his lineup. “Next man up. Get the job done.”
They have done that, of course. They lost Robinson, kept winning, and are 16-3 in the new year. They lost Randle and Anunoby and have now gone 4-1 without them. Brunson would be different. Brunson is the constant, the one element of the lineup that makes the next-man-up mantra the Knicks have so eagerly embraced even remotely viable.
The Knicks are in a curious space right now. The trade deadline is Thursday, and there is always an air of mystery what Leon Rose might do. It’s possible — likely, even — that his maneuvers may be minor, may even be slow-plays until after the deadline passes and buyout candidates begin to emerge as pickups. That may frustrate some, but what ought to be clear by now is that Rose has earned the benefit of the doubt.
And in some ways, Rose’s mission now mirrors the Knicks’ at-large. A more impatient executive might factor in the Knicks’ short-term injury woes in identifying acquisitions, rather than trusting in the power of time.
Similarly, the Knicks have put themselves in position to make some serious headway at the top of the East — second is no longer a pipe dream — but that would mean pushing where maybe it might be more prudent to be cautious. The Knicks have four difficult games before the All-Star break, and it’s conceivable that mass injuries could imperil all of those games and thus put an ambitious seed at risk.
But just as Rose must think long term — even if that means waiting till summer to make his biggest swing — so must the Knicks’ mission be a healthy roster by April, even if it means sacrificing a few slots in the playoff race. It’s not the perfect place to be — but, then, whoever said perfect was even an option?
At this point, only one thing is certain.
The eight-day All-Star break can’t get here fast enough.