The Knicks showed determination and grit in a much-needed win over the Magic

A day or two can change feelings.

The New York Knicks appeared on the defensive earlier this week, using a fly swatter to hold off the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. On Thursday, someone handed them a sword.

OG Anunoby is training again, returning to five-on-five training and is just waiting to get clearance from team doctors before he can return to the game. During a win over the Orlando Magic the next day, Isaiah Hartenstein moved like he did before tendinopathy took over his Achilles tendon. Jalen Brunson scored as often as you'd expect from an All-Star guard, and oh, the knee bruise that looked pretty bad less than a week ago wasn't enough to keep him sidelined for more than one game. Precious Achiuwa pounded the boards and hit any shot near him. Josh Hart did a weird Josh Hart impression. Knicks' drive as a force.

On Friday, they beat the Magic 98-74, the fewest points allowed by any team in the NBA this season and the first time the Knicks have held an opponent to fewer than 75 points since April 2012. The Knicks had lost their first three games of the season against Orlando, which entered the night with a better half-game in the Eastern Conference. The win returned New York (37-26), which hopes to avoid a play-in tournament, to fourth place.

But forget the result, even if it is important, for every obvious reason. Instead, focus on winning conditions.

Just five days after limping off the field in Cleveland, Brunson wasn't just playing. He looked like his usual self, scoring 26 points in just 29 minutes. On the other hand, it was as if one of the most feared defenders in the world had already returned; Anunoby's spirit was everywhere.

After missing only one game due to a knee injury, Jalen Brunson returned on Friday against the Magic and scored 26 points. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The all-perfect version of the Knicks, which fans got a glimpse of from Jan. 14-2 but haven't encountered since, is closer to being fixed.

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Anunoby's rehabilitation is going according to plan. He underwent surgery to remove a loose bone fragment from his right elbow in early February. Since the operation was routine, just a cleaning, he was expected to see doctors again three weeks after surgery and would be allowed for on-field activities after that. Before long, it will be good to go.

Now, he's on schedule, back in contact drills.

All Thibodeau is waiting for is word from team doctors that the backbone of his defense is ready. If he returns in the coming days, New York will have enough time to facilitate his return. We are more than a month away from the qualifiers.

The Knicks have two upcoming home games against the Philadelphia 76ers, who aren't as scary as they once were, considering Tyrese Maxey's status remains uncertain with the All-Star guard stuck in concussion protocols. Reigning MVP Joel Embiid is recovering from a knee injury. A difficult West Coast trip begins with a cookie: a meeting with an inexperienced Portland Trail Blazers team.

These are three winnable games, especially if Anunoby is involved in one or two of them. Suddenly, a piece of light appeared sparkling in Nyx's training room.

There is hope when Thibodeau says Anunoby has been walking around practices without restrictions. There's hope for watching Julius Randle, who is rehabilitating his dislocated shoulder, sweating it out before games and hitting full speed through shooting and ball-handling drills. There is hope in the way the defense stifled the Magic, even if Orlando isn't the scariest offensive team. It's not 1997 anymore. Allowing 74 points through three quarters, let alone four, is impressive.

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There is hope in the way Hartenstein moved, especially when he took a slam dunk from Orlando All-Star Paolo Banchero. Hartenstein has mostly played through his Achilles tendinopathy, but especially over the past month, he hasn't looked the same.

The Knicks didn't have the best defense in the league in January just because Anunoby was around, though the NBA superstar was the main reason. This was also due to Hartenstein insulating the paint. His rejection of Banchero – this type of rejection was a regular occurrence in January.

On Friday, a team emerged that understood the moment.

The Knicks were reeling, losing eight of their last 11 games. And they had just given up a winnable game to the Atlanta Hawks on a night in which they hit too many open jumpers. After two days of rest, they entered Friday's game with a different tone.

Minutes into the game, Brunson stopped to shoot a 3-pointer from near the logo. He moved it. These are not the actions of someone whose knee is bothering them. This was not the type of shot the Knicks took during their 116-100 loss to Atlanta.

Thibodeau has coached differently, too.

The former Detroit Pistons tight end was not needed for Friday's rotation. Alec Burks, who has struggled since coming to the Knicks in February, did not enter the game until the second quarter. He played for five minutes, then walked out and never came back. Thibodeau went with an eight-man rotation in the second half. Bojan Bogdanovic played for only 12 minutes.

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It's a trend worth watching, especially when Anunoby returns to the starting lineup and Randle returns next.

Has Miles “Deuce” McBride officially surpassed Burks in the pecking order? Does that mean no playing time for Burks, who the Knicks acquired in hopes he could anchor the offense behind Brunson? Is Bogdanovic only receiving 15 minutes or so? Could it be any less if Achiuwa blitzed teams like the Magic did, pulling down 14 boards, blocking five shots and somehow inserting himself into any play involving a loose ball?

These are first-world problems, problems that imply the Knicks have too many good players. Organizations strive to resolve these types of issues.

For the first time in a while, the Knicks looked like one of those teams. It's amazing how just 48 hours can change a mood.

(Top photo by Josh Hart: Sarah Steer/Getty Images)

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