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Nerlens Noel injury the only downside to Knicks’ domination

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Monday in Memphis may force the Knicks into starting Taj Gibson at center and using Norvel Pelle as the backup.

In the only downbeat note in Houston on Sunday night, starting center Nerlens Noel crashed knees with Christian Wood and suffered what the Knicks said was a sprained ankle. He left in the third quarter and didn’t return. He played just 11:20.

The Knicks were fine without him. Gibson played 31 solid defensive minutes and scored six points (3 of 4 shooting) with five rebounds with Tom Thibodeau saying he was “unbelievable.’’ Pelle got rare action, playing the final five minutes.

Thibodeau didn’t know the status of Noel for Monday’s game but the fact he didn’t return was not a good sign. Thibodeau has some options other than Pelle as the backup. With Toppin starting to emerge the past two weeks as a two-way force, he can switch to center and play alongside Julius Randle.

Nerlens Noel
Nerlens Noel

Sixth man Alec Burks, who is out of COVID-19 protocol, was held out of Sunday’s contest but has a chance of suiting up in Memphis. The Knicks have not made Burks available for comment since his return to the team. He has missed eight straight games.

“He’s getting a lot closer,’’ Thibodeau said.

The coach hasn’t really altered the rotation since Burks left — instead boosting the minutes of rookie Immanuel Quickley and Derrick Rose. Thibodeau originally said Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, former Knicks lottery picks, would pick up the slack but until Sunday neither had played in any of the previous three games..

“We’ve had guys in and out all season long,’’ Thibodeau said. “We’ll see where he is conditioning-wise. A guy like Alec I think he’ll adjust really quickly.’’

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