Can Hardaway Get Knicks Back on Track?

You can’t blame Knicks fans for fretting that this feels like “Deja boo” all over again.

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Friday night’s loss at the Minnesota Timberwolves was the fifth defeat in the last six games and dropped the Knicks to 19-23, three games out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Bill Pidto, Alan Hahn and Wally Szczerbiak look at how the Timberwolves were able to pull away from the Knicks in the fourth quarter.

Wasn’t it just about three weeks ago that the Knicks beat the Boston Celtics? Weren’t they sitting at 17-14 with playoff possibilities dancing like the Rockettes in fans’ minds?

And didn’t a similar scenario unfold last season? The Knicks were 16-13 before losing to the Celtics on Christmas Day, the start of six straight losses and defeats in 13 of the next 16 games. The playoff door slammed shut as the Knicks fell to 19-26.

This might feel terribly familiar to John Q. Knicks Fan, but it doesn’t to the Knicks.

We’re not too far off,’’ Kristaps Porzingis told reporters after the 118-108 loss to the T-Wolves. “We’re in a bad moment right now. But we’re going to get out of it.’’

The reason for optimism is two-fold:

This group of Knicks is young, optimistic, and unified, a far cry from last season’s older, skeptical and fractured team.

Alan Hahn and Wally Szczerbiak analyze Tim Hardaway Jr.'s efficient performance in his return to the hardwood and Kristaps Porzingis off-night.

And the Knicks got a huge boost from the return of swingman Tim Hardaway Jr., the team’s second-leading scorer (15.9 points per game) and third-most prolific three-point shooter (52-of-160). He scored 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting in Minnesota.

Hardaway missed almost six weeks and 20 games with a stress reaction in his lower left leg. His 52 three’s this season came in just 22 games. Courtney Lee, second on the Knicks in three-pointers, made his 71 three’s in 42 games.

With Hardaway back, opposing teams will find it much harder to pack the defense and double Porzingis. With Hardaway, the Knicks should get more transition baskets and more three-pointers.

That’s what I told the guys — we’re not far off,” Jeff Hornacek told reporters. “Tim was back tonight. At least we got three’s today and spread the court.

“Our guys can’t get down. These last five games we’ve played pretty decent on the road. We got to find another level of toughness, going after balls. When we get that level, we’ll start winning these.’’

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The Knicks are wisely going to nurse Hardaway back. He played 24:45 against the T-Wolves. That number probably will increase when the Knicks host the Pelicans Sunday (3:30; MSG Network) but it will not go up significantly.

The last thing the Knicks want to do is aggravate a stress reaction injury and find Hardaway back on the bench for another six weeks. Hardaway said he was pleasantly surprised by how he felt from a conditioning standpoint.

“I feel good — had a little burst of speed here and there,’’ Hardaway said. “It was great to get my feet wet, taking hits, bumps, finishing at the rim, knocking down jumpers.”

Hardaway has proven to be a dynamic offensive threat and a rugged defender. His ability to make three’s and score in transition has been sorely missed. In 10 of the 20 games, the Knicks lost with Hardaway sidelined, they were held to fewer than 105 points.

“It was good to see him back and enjoying the game and just being happy,’’ Porzingis said. “He’s going to help us get back on track.’’

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