Unselfish Bench Paying Dividends for Knicks

The grind has officially begun.

It’s not as if the Knicks have had it easy this season. They’ve faced the defending NBA champion Cavs twice; once in the season-opener, when Cleveland celebrated its title, and Wednesday night when the Knicks were playing the second game of a back-to-back, while the Cavs were rested.

The Knicks have faced tough matches against the Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, and Utah Jazz, all of whom would be in the playoffs as of this writing.

But tonight the Knicks begin their first grueling road trip of the season in Sacramento against the Kings. It’s the first of a five-game, 10-day West Coast swing, highlighted by the December 15th game at Golden State.

This is the time of the season when depth is paramount. And the Knicks have proven to have a surprisingly deep and versatile, albeit young, bench.

“’Surprised’ I don’t think is the right word,’’ said Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek. “These guys are in the NBA for a reason. They can play.”

According to hoopsstats.com, the Knicks have the seventh best bench in the league with a plus/minus of plus 5.6.

“Sometimes you have a team where you have a distinct difference between guy eight or nine, and 10 through 15,’’ Hornacek said. “Our guys, they’re pretty even.”

“In practice every day, they battle each other so we have multiple guys at different positions. If they’re having a rough night, then maybe we go to one of our other guys. They understand that. They’re cheering for each other and when everybody gets in there and contributes, that’s a great thing to see.’’

Brandon Jennings, the backup point guard who has been a can of Red Bull off the bench, saw the potential of this group early on.

“I think it started in training camp,’’ Jennings said. “In training camp we just kind of clicked. Me and Kyle [O’Quinn] clicked. All the bench guys, we just clicked. We knew our starting unit was going to be good, so we had to try to be just as good.”

Jennings is leading the team with 5.1 assists in 22.2 minutes of play. He’s already posted three, 11-assist performances.

O’Quinn has taken his game to another level recently, highlighted by his 20-point, 13-rebound performance in a 118-114 win over the Timberwolves at The Garden.

Rookie Mindaugas Kuzminskas had a 14-point effort on 4-of-5 shooting from behind the arc in a 106-104 win over the T-Wolves in Minnesota.

“I’m just impressed with the younger guys I’m playing with,’’ Jennings said. “The second unit, they come with a lot of energy, move the ball well. We just play together.”

“We don’t care about stats or anything like that. We just go out there and whoever has it, just go.’’

Justin Holiday has been a defensive demon and shown the ability to knock down the ‘3’. And rookie Willy Hernangomez has shown a quick first step, a deft passing touch and the ability to finish with both hands.

Veteran Sasha Vujacic can still wake up from a nap and down a ‘3’. The versatile Lance Thomas is working his way back from a sprained ankle. Ron Baker, Maurice Ndour and Marshall Plumlee round out a group that is, according to starters, a challenge to practice against.

“They’re always going one hundred percent,’’ said starting shooting guard Courtney Lee. “They play a different style than us. We go against them in practice all the time. They’re more up-tempo, just getting and running. They give us problems in practice.

“Some of them played with each other overseas like KP [Kristaps Porzingis] and Willy played with each other. Kuz [Kuzminskas] played with some guys, too.

“Even though some of them are rookies, they know each other and they know the game. The progress of them coming together and getting their chemistry I think has been a little quicker.

“That’s a unit that definitely has been a positive for us.”

The positive is rooted in unselfishness.

“I think there’s an understanding, we all have the same mentality that we want to carry ourselves a certain way,’’ Holiday said. “When we get in the game we can help the team. I think we’re all professionals in the sense that we understand no matter how much time you get, do the best with it.’’

The best has been pretty darn good.