Quentin Grimes Credit: Bill Moore photo

After having much of their roster miss multiple games over the past three-plus weeks, being placed in the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols as a result of a surge in global COVID-19 cases, the Knicks had several of their core group back on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, where they defeated the Indiana Pacers by 104-94 to improve 18-20.

Julius Randle returned following a two-game absence. He was placed in the health and safety protocols prior to the Knicks’ New Year’s Eve 95-80 road loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Randle’s 30 points and 16 rebounds against the Pacers was a much needed production infusion for the Knicks, who had lost their previous two games. As was RJ Barrett’s team-high 32 points. Barrett was placed in protocols on Dec. 12 and returned to the lineup on Christmas Day.

“I think that the aggressiveness of RJ attacking the rim, and then for Julius to do what he did today was just remarkable,” said Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Injuries have also been a contributing factor to players being out, including point guard Derrick Rose, who underwent surgery on his right ankle on Dec. 22 and hasn’t played a game since Dec. 16. He is not expected to play again until the middle of next month.

Kemba Walker, who was the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the week of Dec. 20-26, has not suited up for the last two games as he was hampered by knee soreness. The COVID and injury circumstances have provided young players such as rookie guard Quentin Grimes valuable minutes.

Tuesday began a stretch in which the Knicks will be at the Garden for eight out of 10 games, continuing tonight versus the Boston Celtics. Their only road dates are this Saturday in a rematch with the Celtics and Saturday, Jan. 15 versus the Atlanta Hawks. It could be an opportune 19-day span for the Knicks to make up ground in the Eastern Conference race.

They were in the 11th spot when the league’s schedule tipped off last night, a half game behind the 18-19 Celtics. Ten teams in each conference will play beyond their final regular season game, with the 7, 8, 9 and 10 seeds taking part in the Play-In Tournament, with two of those four moving on to the playoffs. What may be a disadvantage for the Knicks over the next 17 days is they have labored at MSG this season.

The Knicks will go into tonight’s contest just 8-11 in their own building thus far with a negative point differential of -2.3. They finished last year’s regular season 25-11 at the Garden, holding a positive scoring margin of +3.6. Overall, the Knicks haven’t been at the even mark since Dec. 7 when they were 12-12 and have not been above .500 since Nov. 30 at 11-10.

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