RJ Barrett returns to practice for depleted New York Knicks after six-game absence

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The New York Knicks are in line to get more reinforcements back for their Christmas Day matinee against the Atlanta Hawks after RJ Barrett participated in the team's brief practice Friday afternoon.

"He did more today," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said of Barrett. "We'll see how he feels tomorrow, and go from there."

Barrett hasn't played in a game since entering the NBA's health and safety protocols last week. He's missed the past six games, as the Knicks are in a brutal stretch in which they've gone 3-8 in their past 11 games.

That stretch includes a demoralizing 124-117 home loss to the Washington Wizards on Thursday night despite a 44-point explosion from Kemba Walker, who had returned to the starting rotation after nine games because virtually every other guard at Thibodeau's disposal was unavailable because of injury or COVID-19.

But with Barrett and rookie Quentin Grimes likely able to join forward Obi Toppin on Saturday -- and Immanuel Quickley likely to be ready soon -- New York is hoping reinforcements can help turn around a team that's even dropped out of play-in tournament spots in the bunched-up Eastern Conference standings.

"This is the reality of our league," Thibodeau said. "I think being mentally tough when you face adversity is probably the most important thing in life, so things haven't been going our way. We've had guys out, as has most of the league, and it's how quickly we can adapt. We talked about that today."

Thibodeau pointed to correctable mistakes at the defensive end of the court, where the Knicks have struggled all season. Entering Saturday's game, the Knicks are 23rd in defensive rating -- an uncharacteristic trait for a Thibodeau team.

Toppin, meanwhile, noticed something else while sitting at home watching games as he waited to be cleared from the league's health and safety protocols.

""I was talking to Thibs [about] how we need more energy," Toppin said. "It's like ... we just don't have that energy spark right now."

Toppin, in his second season, has taken meaningful steps forward for New York. He's averaging 8.4 points on 52% shooting this season and has been part of a productive second unit for the Knicks that has been a big catalyst for the team's success this season -- just as it was a year ago.

Now that New York is getting closer to getting its full complement of players back on the court after having several guys in protocols over the past couple of weeks, Thibodeau said he wants to try to get that second unit back to the way it was playing before everyone started to miss time.

"I thought our bench has been one of our strengths," Thibodeau said. "Hopefully we can get back to that soon."

Walker's play has also given Thibodeau something to think about. After he scored 29 points, 21 points and 44 points in his past three games, the coach admitted he could go back to Alec Burks coming off the bench as the Knicks continue to get back to a more normal rotation.

That will be doable, in part, because Derrick Rose will remain out for several weeks due to recent ankle surgery.

"I'd like to get the second unit back that was playing really well," Thibodeau said. "It's going to be different because Derrick is not in there, but that's been a strength. It was a strength last year, it's been a strength this year, and adding in new guys and hopefully we can get our starters on track."

While the Knicks are getting healthier, their opponent Saturday is dealing with its own COVID crisis. Friday's injury report listed nine members of Hawks being in the league's health and safety protocols: guards Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Lou Williams, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Sharife Cooper, forwards Danilo Gallinari, Wes Iwundu and Onyeka Okongwu and center Clint Capela.

Two more players, De'Andre Hunter and Solomon Hill, are out with long-term injuries. With Cameron Reddish and Delon Wright both probable to play with ankle sprains, Atlanta currently has nine players expected to play against the Knicks Saturday afternoon.