WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- For four weeks, Lance Thomas sat helpless as his Knicks team fell from a potential playoff contender to the NBA’s laughing stock.
Thomas ate an inadvertent elbow from Raptors big man Jonas Valanciunas that broke his face in mid-January, a devastating blow to a season already knick-knacked by plantar fasciitis and an ankle injury.
“I thought my teeth were falling out,’’ he said. “I was literally holding my mouthguard up because I thought my teeth were falling out. It was a hard hit.’’
But Thomas made his return on Sunday, the four-week eve of his injury, and contributed 17 valuable minutes to the Knicks’ 94-90 win over the San Antonio Spurs — a win that snapped a four-game losing streak and helped the team avoid its first 0-5 home stretch in franchise history.
New York’s two-way wing picked up five fouls and posted just two points and two rebounds, but to understand his importance to a 23-33 Knicks team, one must look beyond the stat sheet.
Rather, they would need to go back to last season, and a future star’s plea for a hustle and effort player to re-sign with his hometown club.
“Lance is always a player that brings the right mindset to the team,” said Kristaps Porzingis. “He’s always there with his energy and his defensive mindset. We need that, we really missed him. For me, he was one the main guys (we missed) while we were so bad defensively. Now that he’s back, I think he’s gonna bring us back that defensive edge.”
It’s New York Knicks Media Day in White Plains, NY, and the team’s newest free agents take the podium. The Knicks blasted headlines over the summer, trading for Derrick Rose and signing Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings.
But a move to retain one of their glue guys went under the radar. The Knicks re-signed Thomas over the summer, inking him to a four-year deal to keep the Brooklyn-born forward in orange and blue.
Thomas had increased his value tremendously during the 2015-16 season that ended with a 32-50 record. After four seasons in the league produced just seven three-point makes, the Knicks forward drained 44 on a team-best .404 clip. His 8.2 points per game that season were a career-high.
Thomas took the challenge every night, often defending the opposing team’s best player. And he was set to hit unrestricted free agency in a lucrative offseason where Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley netted a five-year, $153 million deal.
That was until Kristaps Porzingis made his case.
"I told him ‘don’t leave us. You gotta stay with us,'" Porzingis reminisced during Media Day. "That's the type of guy who you want to win. He's not the guy that everybody adores, but he's the guy who will do the work and who's there every night. He's a worker.
"And I told him right away, I want him, I need him on my team. He's a guy that really makes things happen. Although you might not see it, he's the guy, so I'm glad he's back."
If you ask Thomas, there was never a question: he wanted to play and win in New York all along, he told SB Nation over the summer. But then the plantar fasciitis, a condition he described as “walking with glass in your heel,” kicked in — in both feet.
Thomas entered the regular season hobbled, though his competitive fire wouldn’t let him show it. That was until an ankle injury in mid-November put him on the bench for weeks.
New York was able to stand pat during that stretch, mustering up a 6-3 record while their chief defender recovered. Instead, Justin Holiday stepped into his role as an impressive a three-and-D wing. But upon Thomas’ return, a mix of factors including Rose’s back injury sent the Knicks spiraling.
The visual is etched into minds forever. Giannis Antetokounmpo backed Thomas down for what seemed to be an eternity before stepping back and rising up for a buzzer-beating game-winner at Madison Square Garden in early January.
Why was Thomas guarding the 6’11 Greek Freak in the first place? Where was the help? Why is Thomas getting playing time? Those were the questions Knicks fans belted out on social media.
“I don’t know many guys in the league that could block his fadeaway,” Thomas said. “I take the challenge of guarding the other team’s best every night. He made a tough shot.”
What those angered fans fail to remember is his effort in shutting Antetokounmpo down the following game. The Greek Freak, who was voted an All-Star starter, still posted 25 points (nine-of-21 shooting) and six blocks, but Thomas came up with a huge defensive stand to power the Knicks to a 116-111 win on the road.
Thomas also scored 10 points on four-of-four shooting in that win over Milwaukee, but New York would go on to lose three more games, including a demoralizing loss to Philadelphia at the hands of a T.J. McConnell buzzer-beater.
A week later, Thomas would see a sharp elbow accidentally come down on his face. Another month out after he was finally recovering from his foot injuries.
Thomas doesn’t talk much about offense. He’s a firm believer in defense and effort, and can go on about a defensive scheme or a need for more energy on the floor.
In that same vein, Thomas doesn’t talk, nor is he asked, much about himself. But ask his teammates about the two-way wing, and they describe him as an integral missing piece to a season gone awry.
“Lance is gonna come in and be solid, you know he’s gonna lead because he plays hard, first and foremost,” Holiday told SB Nation. “When you give the effort and you play hard, that trumps everything. ... Not having Lance out there helping our team it’s tough for us.”
Even while hurt, Thomas still saw the need for defensive improvement on the sidelines. He’d point out what he saw to to teammates, but the message can get lost when you’re not out there fighting with them.
“As a competitor, it’s hard to watch a team struggle and you not be able to have any effect on it,” he said. “I lead by example. So it was really difficult for me these past four weeks to try to lead from the bench without a uniform, without being able to physically compete with my guys.”