Point guard Derrick Rose has a chance to be the 2021-22 Knicks’ savior beginning this weekend.
Rose may not be in the lineup Friday against mighty Miami when the Knicks begin the season’s unofficial “second half” following the All-Star break. But according to a source, the latest Rose will make his return from ankle surgery is Sunday against the Sixers.
Rose, who hasn’t played since shutting it down for the second half of the Dec. 16 game in Houston, is officially listed as doubtful for Miami after two days of full-blown practices following the break.
“It’s still a possibility,” embattled Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said after Thursday’s practice in Tarrytown. “We want to make sure he’s ready to go. It’s conditioning. There’s nothing you can do to replicate an NBA game so he’s taking on contact for the first time [Wednesday] and today. He’s got to get used to taking contact. He did everything.”
The Knicks finished 10 games over .500 last season because Rose resembled an All-Star in the home stretch. The Knicks entered this season’s All-Star break nine games under .500 (25-34) because Rose has missed the last 30 contests.
The last three games entering the All-Star break featured mammoth fourth-quarter collapses in Portland and in home games against the Thunder and Nets. The Knicks choked on a 23-point lead in Portland, an 11-point second-half lead versus OKC and a 28-point bulge against Brooklyn. The Knicks — and their depressed fans — have had nine days to marinate in the mess.
The Knicks were a terrific fourth-quarter club during last season’s renaissance, and Rose was a chief reason.
“It’s the veteran leadership,” Thibodeau said. “When you have leads like that, it’s control and manage the game. It’s the point guard’s responsibility. It’s disappointing we didn’t close those games out, but we did a lot of good things to build those leads and then we got to finish the game. It’s understanding how different the fourth quarter is.”
In addition to Rose’s absence, RJ Barrett missed the last four games with an ankle sprain occurred with 18 seconds left in the blowout loss in Denver. The injury was easily avoidable if Thibodeau had done what most coaches do — protect their standout players in routs.
Barrett is expected back against Miami.
“You can’t look and say that we’ve been playing horrible,” Barrett said. “To be up 28, to be up 23 in Portland, to be winning those games, especially by that much, you have to be doing something good, I think we are in fact playing very well. Just closing out the game, not giving teams life.”
Rose will help with holding on. While Thibodeau is expected to start wing Alec Burks at point guard, Rose should finish.
“He looked good [in practice],” said Julius Randle, who has emerged statistically the past seven games. “We missed him a lot obviously, he’s a great player, brings a lot to this team that goes unnoticed. It will be great to have him back. He’s going to help us a lot moving forward.
“He knows how to get in the lane, hit guys, spray the ball and get them shots. He knows how to push the pace. He did a lot of good things and hit big shots for us.”
When Rose last spoke a few weeks ago, he said he hurt his ankle in Chicago in late November. So he played noticeably hurt with a bone spur for two weeks before it became unbearable.
With Kemba Walker gracefully stepping out of the way, shutting it down instead of likely being yanked from the rotation again, Rose has a clear pathway. Thibodeau likes Burks’ defensive versatility as a point guard with size. But this is also about Rose working so fluidly with the second unit, a dynamic that was once its biggest strength.
“The second unit played very well together,” Thibodeau said. “The idea is to make sure the team is functioning well. When we had Derrick, Alec, Quick [Immanual Quickley] and Obi [Toppin], that group functions very well together and gave us a little bit of everything. Obi’s athleticism really stands out in that group. Pushing the ball, he gets up the ball quickly and that also takes advantage of the way Obi can run.”
There’s 23 games to make up a 3 ¹/₂-game deficit in the standings entering Thursday, as the Knicks trail 10th-place Atlanta for the final play-in spot. Their schedule is rough, with four straight games against teams with a .600 or better winning percentage in Miami, Philly twice and Phoenix.
But with Rose on the verge, the Knicks, counted out as dead, could still make it interesting.