NEW YORK -- We're less than two months into the season, but the New York Knicks already are facing what feels like a pivotal stretch of the schedule: a few weeks without Tim Hardaway Jr.
Hardaway is out for the next two weeks (at least) due to a stress ailment in his left shin. He will be evaluated on Dec. 19, but there's a chance that he could be sidelined well beyond that initial evaluation. If Hardaway has a stress fracture, he'd be out for a least a month. If there's no fracture, he could return shortly after that two-week evaluation.
At the very least, the Knicks will have to figure out how to thrive without their No. 2 scorer for the next six games.
If Wednesday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies was any indication, it might not be that difficult.
Nearly every lineup change associated with Hardaway's absence worked out well for New York against Memphis.
Courtney Lee, filling in at shooting guard, had a team-high 24 points. Lance Thomas, in the starting lineup at small forward in Hardaway's absence, helped the Knicks limit Memphis to 41 percent shooting.
Michael Beasley, back in a reserve role with Kristaps Porzingis (18 points) in the lineup, had 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting (along with just one turnover).
The Knicks used a combination of ball movement and solid team defense -- something they'd used during a surprisingly strong start to the season -- to overwhelm Memphis after a slow start. It's a formula that they'll probably have to rely on during Hardaway's absence.
"We know we can't outscore teams at this point. We need to play really good defense and get our points," coach Jeff Hornacek said.
It might sound a bit hyperbolic, but it's not a stretch to say that how the Knicks respond during Hardaway's absence could define their season. If New York (12-12) sputters with Hardaway out, team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry might choose to unload veterans at the trade deadline with an eye toward the draft. (On that front, opposing teams continue to show interest in Lee, per league sources.)
But if the Knicks can tread water during Hardaway's absence -- and remain in playoff contention into late January -- maybe Mills and Perry look to bolster the roster at the Feb. 8 trade deadline and make a push for the postseason.
All of this, of course, underscores just how important Hardaway has been for New York. After a slow start, he established himself as one of the team’s most productive players. The 25-year-old averaged 17.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game before his injury, making most forget about the slack-jawed reaction to his $71 million contract over the summer.
"There’s a reason when Steve Mills talked about getting Tim [over the summer]," Hornacek said recently.
Now Hornacek and the coaching staff will have to figure out how to make up for Hardaway's scoring and playmaking for the foreseeable future.
With Hardaway out, New York likely will rely heavily on Porzingis, Lee, Beasley, Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to pick things up on offense.
If (very) recent history is any indication, Lee seems to be up for the challenge.
In his past five games, he is averaging 16.4 points per game on 58 percent shooting, including 54 percent from beyond the arc. Last week, Lee had a simple explanation for his recent offensive surge.
"We're not running the triangle," Lee said. "We're running a different offense that's more fast-paced, and it's more suitable for my style of play."
No matter what offense the Knicks run, Lee figures to continue to get plenty of opportunities to score with Hardaway out. Hornacek said he wanted Lee to shoot 15 or 16 shots per night with Hardaway sidelined, a 50 percent increase from Lee's average at the moment.
"I better warm my arm up," Lee joked after Wednesday's win.
Of course, the Knicks also will rely more heavily on Porzingis. The third-year big man was putting up All-NBA numbers early in the season, but had come back to earth more recently. Hardaway's injury gives Porzingis a chance to carry the Knicks during a pivotal stretch (and, as a byproduct, bolster his resume for a potential All-Star invite).
Porzingis, though, doesn't necessarily see it that way.
"I'm always trying to be aggressive, but I think I don't need to overdo things and do too much," he said. "I'm just going to play my game."
No matter how the Knicks approach things on offense with Hardaway out -- more shots for Porzingis, Lee or someone else -- it's clear that they’re in the midst of a challenging stretch of the season. It's one that could determine whether they're playing for a playoff spot in April -- or for pingpong balls.