All Knicks can do is cope with unfortunate injury breaks

All Knicks can do is cope with unfortunate injury breaks

This was in those years when the Mets were assembling what was supposed to be a billion-dollar pitching staff, one kid after another sprinting through the minor league system and arriving in Queens throwing 98 on the black. A regular theme was a dark-cloud thesis: how do you guard against young arms flaming out, blowing out, busting out?

Terry Collins was the manager then, and he took great interest in the subject because years before, when he was managing the Angels, he’d gotten what passes for a doctorate-level lecture on the subject from Dr. Frank Jobe. Jobe had invented Tommy John surgery and knew, better than any person on earth, how fragile an athlete’s health really is day to day.

Jobe’s words stuck in Collins’ brain, and in his heart, and they stay there still.

“No matter how hard you try, and no matter how much you do,” Jobe told Collins, “if they’re gonna break, they’re gonna break.”

I relayed that old chestnut to Tom Thibodeau Tuesday night, maybe 90 minutes before his outmanned and outgunned Knicks got blasted by the Pelicans, 115-92, at Madison Square Garden, a night after escaping the Pistons in the same gym. He would be fielding a shorthanded team again — “We’ve been shorthanded all year,” he said with a weary grin — and this time there would be another name added to the list of guys wearing civvies instead of unis on the bench:

Jalen Brunson.

Monday night he’d taken his usual pounding in trying to coax the Knicks past Detroit; Tuesday morning he’d woken up with neck spasms, tried all day to work them out before finally conceding to the wisdom of sitting out the game.

A frustrated Josh Hart reacts during the Knicks loss to the Pelicans.
A frustrated Josh Hart reacts during the Knicks’ 115-92 loss to the Pelicans. Robert Sabo for NY Post

It is a case of playing the long game over the short. Without Brunson in the short term, the Knicks are hard-pressed to beat anybody; if that ever became a long-term absence … well, that’s almost too awful to ponder. So Brunson sat.

I brought up Collins’ old sentiments. Thibodeau nodded grimly.

“It’s sports,” Thibodeau said. “It’s what happens. The only way to guarantee nothing happening is to not play.”

For Thibodeau, this has become a chronic issue he’s been forced to deal with ever since his earliest days in Chicago. He is a demanding coach, and the players he’s interested in coaching are, to a man, as demanding of themselves as he ever could be. That means showing up. That means playing. It means poking the Minutes Police with a stick sometimes.

And it’s funny: in the hot-take realm of sports right now, within the same hour — sometimes within the same sentence — you can hear loud, angry rants about how “load management” is the biggest scourge in sports … and equally loud, equally angry criticisms of coaches, like Thibodeau, who choose not to outfit their players in Bubble Wrap.

Who actually believe players should play.

For Thibodeau, this all goes back to the fateful afternoon of April 28, 2012. His second Bulls team had earned the No. 1 seed out of the East, had tied the Spurs for the best-overall record at 50-19, both things that were the result of relentlessly attacking the regular season, putting themselves in optimal position for the playoffs.

Tom Thibodeau reacts during the Knicks' loss to the Pelicans on Tuesday night.
Tom Thibodeau reacts during the Knicks’ loss to the Pelicans on Tuesday night. Robert Sabo for NY Post

Then, with 1:22 left in the first game of the postseason, with Chicago up by 13, Derrick Rose went down with a torn ACL. And for years ever since — despite Rose himself aggressively exonerating his coach — that injury has stuck to Thibodeau. He played him too many games, said the PT Patrol. Played him too many minutes. Played him even comfortably ahead in a game.

So as the Knicks’ exodus of talent — notably the extended absence of the entire front line of Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle and OG Anunoby — has grown, the Minutes Cops have bent themselves into pretzels trying to assess blame. Thibs is the easy target just because he is.

“It’s part of sports,” he said. “People get hurt. Everybody deals with something, everyone has something they’re dealing with. I know how lucky we are with the guys we have — Jalen, Julius, Isaiah [Hartenstein], those guys work their way through things and give whatever they have. We have a whole team full of guys like that.”

But … well, sports. Pitchers tear up their elbows. Running backs bust up knees. Hockey players collect concussions like baseball cards. And basketball players hurt their shoulders, their ankles, their Achilles, their elbows, their necks. No Bubble Wrap for any of them. If they’re gonna break, they’re gonna break.

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