The harsh glare of the regular season hits Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks on Wednesday night in their season opener at empty Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
A 3-1 preseason was all well and good, but even hyped rookie Obi Toppin knows it means little.
“Everybody is talking about the difference because it’s real,’’ Toppin said after Tuesday’s practice before the Knicks flew out to face the Pacers. “My coach at Dayton used to put it in terms of the preseason games were rubber bullets. When you get into the real games that count, those are real bullets. We’re jumping into the fire.’’
The Knicks had a grand old time, showing positive signs against the Pistons and Cavaliers, but those might be the Eastern Conference’s two worst clubs.
The Knicks are projected to be among the bottom, too, in this pandemic-shortened 72-game season. Thibodeau’s winning history and some flashes of hope from young prospects RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and rookie Immanuel Quickley offer a slice of promise.
“We’re in a good place,’’ said starting power forward Julius Randle, who has been on losing teams his entire six-year career. “We’re taking steps, getting better each day. So we feel confident going into [Wednesday].”
But these are the Pacers, who have made the playoffs five straight seasons, and posted a 45-28 mark in 2019-20.
They have a new coach, former Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren. Sources say he has lit a fire under Victor Oladipo, the All-Star shooting guard who took a step back since his knee surgery nearly two years ago and was on the trade block.
“I think they’re a very talented team,’’ Thibodeau said. “They’ve built a great foundation over the last few years. They’re playing a little different offensively but they’re one of the top teams in the East for sure.”
Thibodeau hasn’t revealed his starting lineup. It’s a vexing decision. He has no stars, but lots of interchangeable pieces.
Thibodeau may turn to a more veteran unit that began the first two preseason games — Elfrid Payton at point guard, Alec Burks at shooting guard, Barrett at small forward, Randle at power forward and Nerlens Noel at center.
Robinson had a dynamic finish to the preseason and could get the starting nod, especially if Noel’s knee is still sore.
Quickley, a preseason rookie revelation out of Kentucky, may need more seasoning before being handed such a vital role at the outset. The 25th pick in the draft looked more impactful than Toppin, the 8th-overall selection.
Thibodeau, a fan of short rotations, said that even for the opener, he’ll stick to 10 men. That could result in guards Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina not playing.
Knox, Quickley, Reggie Bullock, Robinson and Toppin seem certain rotation candidates.
“You have to base it on performance and merit, what guys have done,’’ Thibodeau sad. “We have a pretty good idea of who the 10 are, and then the question will become who do we start. There are a couple positions that are basically 50-50 type of positions. So we’re still evaluating that.
“We have a rotation, but it’s not set in stone. We have an idea of what it might look like but we’re still finding our way with that.’’
The rotation is jammed, even without combo guard Austin Rivers’ presence. He missed all of the training-camp practices and preseason games with a pulled groin and still isn’t practicing. Rivers will be out the early part of the season.
“Quality depth is important,’’ Thibodeau said. “I feel we have that.’’
Whether the Knicks have quality perimeter shooting may be the biggest issue.
In the first three preseason games, the Knicks were an abysmal 21-of-90 from beyond the 3-point arc (23.3 percent, triggering teams to play a 2-3 zone). They straightened things out in the final five quarters — mostly on the strength of Knox and Bullock.
Burks, Bullock and Quickley are each projected as decent deep shooters. Barrett and Randle looked potent enough, but still they have no defined closer after president Leon Rose’s nondescript approach to free agency.
“I still see the Knicks as 14th, 15th-best team in the East,’’ one NBA scout said. “If I’m coaching against them, I’d play zone the entire game. Bullock is their only established marksman. They are light years away from being playoff bound.’’
The low expectations have the Knicks fired up.
They want their identity to be a scrappy, intelligent defensive club.
“[We’re] just a hard working group, a group that goes out there and brings the defensive intensity, tries to outwork our opponent,’’ Barrett said. “I feel like if you bring the energy and play harder than the other team, you put yourself in a position to win every game. I think that’s what we’ve got to hang our hat on.”
They’ll need that energy Wednesday, when Thibodeau coaches his first official game in nearly two years.
“It’s what you miss when you’re away,’’ Thibodeau said. “After a while what you do miss is the competition. I think opening night for everyone is exciting and it’s just the beginning.’’