Mitchell Robinson could play in Knicks’ final preseason game

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The Knicks could be getting rid of their favorite word — close — to describe rehabbing center Mitchell Robinson very soon.

The young, shot-blocking and dunking demon is at last nearing his return, and could play in the team’s preseason finale on Friday.

“He’s real close,” coach Tom Thibodeau said on Wednesday, before the Knicks played host to the Pistons at the Garden. “Hopefully, the last game he’ll get in. … He’s fully engaged now. We feel like one more practice he’ll be good.”

The 7-foot Robinson has begun to practice fully, a significant hurdle as he tries to return to the court following foot surgery last March. For weeks, the Knicks had said Robinson was “close” and “making progress.” But now, there is a tangible update.

Though Thibodeau wouldn’t say Robinson definitely will play on Friday against the Wizards, or that he’ll be ready for the regular-season opener next Wednesday against the Celtics, he’s certainly headed in the right direction.

Mitchell Robinson
Corey Sipkin

“I always say that I believe you have to practice well to play well. So I want to see that first. And he’s done better,” Thibodeau said. “This will be a step-by-step process for him. Just be patient. And put everything you have into each day and see where it goes. And when he’s ready, he’s ready. We’re not going to rush, we’re not going to skip over things. But we’re very pleased with what he’s done thus far.”

A healthy and effective Robinson would be significant for the Knicks, particularly on the defensive end where he blocked 1.5 shots per game a year ago. Robinson bulked up in the offseason — Thibodeau jokingly referred to him as “Flex” — adding ample muscle that may help him in defending Eastern Conference centers like Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Atlanta’s Clint Capela.

“He maximized the time that he had,” Thibodeau said. “So, getting that position, as you know, you have to be strong. And his elite athleticism, if you combine that with the strength that he’s gained, I think that’s a big plus.”

If Robinson does play on Friday, it may enable the Knicks to get their entire rotation on the floor for one dress rehearsal before the games begin to count. That has yet to happen. Nerlens Noel (hamstring/knee) and Kemba Walker (rest) were both out on Wednesday and Julius Randle missed the second preseason game due to the birth of his second child, Jayce. Thibodeau said Noel was doing better and is close to returning. But the Knicks’ second-year coach thinks these absences will only help his team moving forward

“You have to take the approach that ideally you’d like to have everyone but that’s not reality. Everyone has to be ready,” Thibodeau said. “Whatever your circumstances are, you want to make the best of those circumstances. So what it’s given us is an opportunity to look at Jericho Sims. Julius being out that one game gave us an opportunity to start Obi [Toppin] and play Kevin [Knox]. So it gives us a chance to work the other guys in.

“As much as you try to get as close to a game intensity [in practice] as possible it’s impossible to do. So it’s good to have these opportunities. You want to try to take advantage of them with the understanding this is part of the season. Over the course of the season you need everyone.”

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