Can injury-ravaged Knicks avoid Play-In Tournament?

How quickly things can change in an NBA season. The Knicks were 14-2 in January, rattling off win after win behind their new starting five, only for a wave of injuries to cost them multiple stars and starters, resulting in a February that saw them go 4-8.

They’ve been laughably short-handed in recent games. Only seven full-time NBA players were active in Tuesday night’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, a repeat affair, and they’ve had to start multiple backups and even third-stingers at times.

With a lack of co-stars, the load is falling on Jalen Brunson and whatever healthy secondary pieces are available to New York. Julius Randle, OG Anunoby and Mitchell Robinson are all expected back some time this month, but exactly when and how they’ll perform straight out of recovery remains a mystery.

All these factors weighing down the Knicks have dropped them from comfortably in the East’s No. 3 seed to the No. 4 seed but just one game out of the Play-In Tournament, where the wrong loss or two could keep them out of the playoffs entirely.

This would be a brutally unlucky finish to a promising season, and one the team will do whatever they can to avoid with all their pieces coming back in short order.

The question is: can they avoid that harsh fate?

New York’s remaining schedule is about average, with slightly more road games and a mix of opponents. They’re likely to go at least another week before their injured players start returning, meaning taking on the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic without reinforcements.

Dropping two or three of those games, which is entirely plausible given the strength of those teams, could push the Knicks down into the seventh or eighth seed.

The good news is falling into ninth or 10th should be close to impossible, with the difference between the eighth-seed Miami Heat and ninth-seed Chicago Bulls at five games. The bad news is Orlando and Miami have the easiest remaining schedules in basketball, and have both been hot.

Indiana has a tough schedule to get through, while Philadelphia tries to skate by without Joel Embiid, making them the more vulnerable teams New York would have to outrun. The Knicks play the Sixers in back-to-back games at MSG later this month, which could prove pivotal in the standings.

Those are winnable games even without Randle, Robinson or Anunoby, but it’s possible one or more of those guys make their return around then. If not, their next games are a four-game west coast swing beginning March 14, a full two weeks since the latest progress report and an ideal time to see most of the lineup back.

The Knicks play Portland before facing a gauntlet of postseason-primed teams in Sacramento, Golden State and Denver. Even with the roster whole, that won’t be an easy trip.

You have to consider the time it takes for guys to get their rhythm back, a task made more difficult by having to chase Stephen Curry around or guard Nikola Jokic. It’s possible the Knicks find themselves in the seventh or eighth seed and a game or two back following this trip.

But should they be fully healthy, things ease up in time for a potential late-season run. Their next four games beginning on March 21 are Brooklyn, Detroit, Toronto and San Antonio, offering a catch-up opportunity before their final nine-game stretch featuring mixed opponents.

New York will get one more matchup with Miami, who they already control the tiebreaker with, and three with Chicago – all in April. Indiana and Orlando already won their tiebreakers with the Knicks, while Philly is down 0-2 in the season series with a chance to tie via their back-to-back.

There are far too many variables to predict how this all shakes out for the Knicks, but one thing is for sure -- it won’t be easy securing a playoff spot. If there’s any consolation to fans, Basketball-Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report gives New York an 80.9 percent shot of finishing in the top six, and ESPN gives them an 83.6 percent chance.

The Knicks need to get out of these next five games with a 3-2 or 2-3 record to tread water, with those two Sixers games being pivotal. If their top players return for the West Coast trip and can steal one from the Kings, Warriors or Nuggets, it would set them up nicely for the home stretch.

Injuries can completely derail an NBA season. Luckily for the Knicks, their injuries appear to have only partially knocked it off course. This stretch has been a supremely challenging one, but reinforcements are arriving, and fans can only hope they’re not too late.