NEW YORK -- For the next three to eight weeks, the Knicks must play without their second-leading scorer. And coping with the absence of John Starks presents New York with a critical challenge at a crucial stage of the season.
A more definitive timetable for Starks' return will be set after he undergoes arthroscopic surgery on today to repair cartilage damage in his left knee.
If Starks can return in three or four weeks, he should be at full strength when the playoffs begin in the last week of April. But in a worst-case scenario, Starks was in danger of being out of action, or not at full strength, when the post-season began.
Starks suffered the injury Wednesday night in Atlanta, when he slipped going for a steal in the fourth quarter and twisted his knee as he fell. He finished the game, but complained of a popping sound in his knee Friday in Boston. He sat out the game against the Celtics.
On Saturday morning, Starks learned he had cartilage damage when a magnetic resonance imaging test was done, but the team did not announce the severity of the injury until after the 96-86 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night.
Asked how he took the diagnosis, Starks said: "I was shocked. I'm very disappointed. I thought I had a twisted knee. It's not a career-ending injury though. Hopefully, I can be back in three to four weeks."
Dr. Norman Scott, the Knicks' team physician who will perform the surgery, said the length of Starks' recovery period would depend upon whether the damaged cartilage could be repaired or if it had to be removed.
In the locker room Saturday night, there was certainly no panic about Starks. The Knicks (42-19) have won six straight games, and they have been handling injuries all season. Even if Starks is out longer than hoped, Pat Riley said he thinks the Knicks would find a way to remain a contender, not only for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but for a championship.
"We can't cry over it," said Riley. "If it's that long, then we're going to have to find another way to do it. And if we're really committed, and if they're serious about it, we'll find a way."
But Starks' absence will put added strain on an offense that has already struggled. In addition to a 19-point average, Starks brought other elements to the Knicks:
* He is the team's best three-point shooter by far, with 113 this season. Greg Anthony is next with 31.
* He leads the team in assists, averaging 5.9. No other Knicks guard has Starks' ability to drive to the basket, or to create shots for either himself or teammates.
* He leads the team in steals with 95.