Return of Lance Thomas Igniting Knicks Defense

Almost every day for months, Lance Thomas would lay on his back in front of his locker, while a member of the Knicks training staff firmly rolled a ribbed steel massager across the bottom of both feet.

Thomas would wince as more and more pressure was applied.

His toes and foot were pushed towards his shin, stretching the Achilles tendon and other tissue.

Then came the ice baths, so cold a polar beat might have asked for foot warmers.

For Thomas, that was not the most painful aspect of treating plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the ligament that runs across the bottom the foot, connecting the heel bone to the toes. The condition is vexing in terms of how long it takes to alleviate the stabbing pain and tightness that accompany the excruciating condition.

It can come and go like a telemarketer.

That was what basketball had become for Thomas, one of the more respected defenders in the NBA. Instead of being able to help the Knicks on defense, his feet were prodded and pulled like silly putty.

No pain, no gain sounds great unless you’re the one in pain.

“I was frustrated most of the year, I couldn’t bring that [defense],’’ Thomas told reporters in Orlando after the Knicks beat the Magic, 101-90, on Wednesday night.

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 1: Lance Thomas #42 of the New York Knicks handles the ball during a game against the Orlando Magic on March 1, 2017 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

“I couldn’t move the way I wanted to move. I was in pain. It feels good to have a healthy body right now.’’

Thomas’s body has taken a beating this season.

After missing most of November with the plantar fasciitis, Thomas had worked his way back until January 15, when he took an elbow to the face from Toronto’s 7-foot, 255-pound center Jonas Valanciunas.

The blow broke the orbital bone, triggering searing headaches.

“I was in so much pain,’’ Thomas said. “I never had headaches like that in my life.”

Thomas missed a month. The Knicks missed him.

At 6-foot-8, 235, the lanky Thomas is the Knicks most versatile front court defender, agile enough to defend the perimeter and strong enough to bang down low. He often is on an island defending the likes of LeBron James, James Harden and Jimmy Butler.

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 28: Lance Thomas #42 of the New York Knicks stops Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls from getting off a shot at the United Center on March 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Knicks 111-80. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Without Thomas, the Knicks defense suffered. And Thomas suffered from the bench knowing his presence could have made a difference.

[HAHN: Thomas is the ultimate glue guy]

There was a bizarre silver lining to the broken facial bone. It forced Thomas to give the plantar fasciitis a chance to truly heal. He played through pain in December until mid-January, when the broken orbital bone forced him to rest.

First, he hurt from toe to head. Then he hurt from head to toe.

“Yeah, I got cracked in the face and I got my feet back,” Thomas quipped. “Nobody wants a fracture in their face. I had to rest this. I still had the headaches, it gave me a chance to rest my feet and heal. Now that I’m back playing, I feel great.”

This, of course, is not a protocol you would find in any medical journal. But how it unfolded and Thomas’s return couldn’t have come at a more pressing time.

Center Joakim Noah is out for at least 3-to-4 weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, leaving the Knicks thin in the front court.

Thomas, who wears a protective plastic mask, played almost 32 minutes in the Orlando win. He scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field, 3-of-4 from the line, with five rebounds, two steals and one assist.

His communication and help on defense aren’t boxscore stats, but they are contributions not lost on coach Jeff Hornacek.

“I just think his contribution on the defensive end has been fantastic in games,’’ Hornacek said.

The Knicks (25-36) play the 76ers (22-38) tonight (6:30 PM; MSG Network) in Philadelphia with a chance to continue to close in on the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks have gone 3-3 in the six games since Thomas’s return.

The 76ers will be without center Joel Embiid, but it seems no matter who’s in uniform, this game is likely to come down to a last-second shot.

The Sixers edged the Knicks, 98-97, on Jan. 11 when T.J. McConnell hit a buzzer beater. Carmelo Anthony extracted revenge on Feb. 25 at The Garden when his 10-footer with three-tenths of a second left gave New York a 110-109 triumph.

“I’m just very happy that I’m able to fight with my team,’’ Thomas said. “I’m just giving everything I have for my team.”