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Josh Hart’s injury just the latest challenge facing Knicks as Pacers series heads to Game 7: ‘Add it to the list’

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INDIANAPOLIS — Josh Hart is sitting on the bench, holding a towel over his head with one hand and a heating pad wrapped in a towel over his abdomen with the other.

The only sight worse than the final score of the Knicks’ 116-103 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Friday — a loss forcing a win-or-go-home Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday — is the increasing number of names piling on the team’s injury report.

Hart became the latest addition after suffering what the team called abdominal soreness in the first quarter on Friday.

He tried to box-out Pacers All-Star Pascal Siakam on a missed free throw with less than two minutes left in the first quarter, an action he’s done time and time again as one of the league’s premier rebounders at any height, but after Siakam fell on the floor to recover the ball, Hart grabbed at his abdomen, walked away from the play, then hunched over in pain.

This is the same Josh Hart who became the first player since the NBA began tracking distances traveled in-game to run a marathon — 26.2 miles — on the court in an eight-game span.

The same Josh Hart who leads all playoff participants in total minutes logged despite tallying just 31 minutes on Friday and 24 minutes five nights earlier in the Knicks’ Game 4 loss to the Pacers.

The same Josh Hart who has run through a brick wall for a Knicks team decimated by injury, unfortunately just got decimated by an injury.

“Obviously something must have been really wrong, but I saw him come back in the game and continue the fight,” said Hart’s longtime friend and teammate Jalen Brunson. “I wasn’t really necessarily worried or anything. I guess you can just add it to the list.”

Hart asked out of the game at the 6:47 mark of the first quarter.

He checked back into the game at the 4:57 mark of the opening period, sat the first 3:12 of the second quarter, then played the rest of the first half. He then checked back into the game to start the second half, this time with black tape over his abdomen, and played until the 6:39 mark before going to the bench and checking back in with 3:19 left in the period. Hart even played the first 2:07 of the fourth quarter before head coach Tom Thibodeau hooked him for the night.

“Obviously it’s tough because he brings a lot of the rebounding for us, a lot of the effort,” said Miles McBride. “He’s one of our leaders. So for him to not return is tough.”

Now, there are differing opinions on Hart’s potential availability for Game 7, which has an early 3:30 p.m. tipoff time on Sunday: Those of his teammates, and those of the so-called social media doctors.

McBride, for example, suggested Hart was already in better shape after the game on Friday.

“I mean, he seems like he’s feeling better now,” he said in front of his locker after the game. “I’m not sure about the whole situation, but obviously for a guy like that who’s pretty tough, asking out is not a good sign, but I think he’ll bounce back.”

Starting center Isaiah Hartenstein also believes Hart will be available for his team on Sunday.

“I mean, just knowing him, I didn’t talk to him or know the situation right now, but just knowing him, he’ll do whatever to play,” said Hartenstein. “If his leg’s not falling off, I can probably say he’ll probably play. I haven’t talked to him. We’ll see. It’s hard. He’s done so much for us this season. We’ll see.”

And Brunson suggested there’s no way Hart would miss an elimination game with a chance at the Eastern Conference Finals on the line.

“I would assume he’s going to play,” he said. “It’s Game 7.”

Hart’s availability, of course, depends on the severity of his injury. Soreness should subside, but if an abdominal strain is the underlying cause of his soreness, some believe Hart’s status for Game 7 could be in jeopardy.

It should be noted the Knicks initially listed OG Anunoby as out due to right elbow inflammation in late January before specifying a week later he had bone spur irritation in his elbow and ultimately needed to undergo a procedure to remove a loose bone fragment in-season.

They also said Bojan Bogdanovic suffered a left ankle contusion in the first round against the Philadelphia 76ers before announcing he’d undergo season-ending surgery two days later.

The injuries have mounted. Hart is the fifth rotation player sidelined due to injury, the fourth whose injury occurred in the playoffs: Bogdanovic, Anunoby, Hart and Mitchell Robinson.

The social media doctors believe it would require much more than just soreness to sideline one of the toughest players on the Knicks roster.

“Obviously, you never wanna see anybody get hurt, but it’s been our season. We have more than enough, whoever’s on the court,” said Donte DiVincenzo, another one of Hart’s former college teammates at Villanova. “I’ve said it 100 times: Whatever guys are on the court, we have a blueprint here, and Thibs demands certain things from certain guys. And you go out there, you compete your tails off and you give yourself a chance to win. That’s our mindset. Whether he goes or not, that’s our mindset.”

This, however, has been the plight of the 2023-24 Knicks.

No team has embodied the next-man-up mentality more than these Knicks, who have sought answers for every injury thrown their way, to large success, securing the East’s No. 2 seed and winning a first round playoff series against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers despite boasting a battered roster.

And while the injuries continue to take a toll, there is no time for this team to feel sorry for itself. There’s no time to make excuses, either.

Hart won’t make one. If he can play, he will play.

And if he can’t, the Knicks, as they’ve done all season, will try to find a way.

“That’s what we have each other for,” said Brunson. “There’s a lot of things obviously that physically didn’t go our way with our team this year. I think our main focus is whoever we have out there, regardless of what you’re dealing with or anything, if you are out there ,you are ready to go. Yes, Josh asked to come back out, but he went back in and gives everything he has. What more can you ask for from a teammate. Knowing the situation, we’re just going to have each other backs.”

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