A day after being returned to the Knicks' starting lineup because of Jamal Crawford's injured big toe, Allan Houston was happy to be there but tentative about how many minutes he could play.
Houston is filling in for Crawford, the team's shooting guard and second-leading scorer who sprained his right big toe Wednesday during a loss to the Boston Celtics. He is expected to miss three to six weeks.
"I didn't expect it to happen this way and to happen this soon," Houston said about his start against Charlotte on Sunday, his first in eight months. "But I'm ready."
While Crawford was in the team's training room Friday, Houston stretched his quadriceps under the basket for a few minutes before walking off the court at the Knicks' practice facility with his arms tightly crossed. When asked about his oft-injured knees, he smiled and said they felt great.
Houston had planned to ease back into playing more minutes after being out for eight months with knee problems, but now he has no choice. After playing in only eight games -- and averaging only 19.6 minutes -- he will start for the first time since March 26. He said he expected to stay on the court much longer than he has recently.
And for the first time this season, Crawford will watch a game from the bench.
"It is a big blow," said Stephon Marbury, the only Knick who has scored more than Crawford this season. "But it's kind of like Allan wanted to play more. It kind of worked out better for him."
Crawford wore a short, soft boot on his aching right foot Friday. He said his big toe was swollen, even after icing, electrical stimulation and ultrasound. With a glum look on his face, Crawford could not say when he thought he would return. He said the team, which has lost two consecutive games, would do fine without him.
"I think the best thing about this team is the depth," Crawford said. "It will be good for Allan. He will get a lot of court time."
Coach Lenny Wilkens said he would monitor Houston closely, adding that he will take him out if he becomes tired or if his knees begin to ache.
There are a few players who could step into Houston's spot if he needs to rest or cannot finish the game. Penny Hardaway, who has been on the injured list with a strained right hamstring, is not one of them.
Hardaway practiced Friday, but he did not do any full-court work. He said he hoped to be back within two weeks. "For the most part, I can tell I'm not really ready right now," he said.
Wilkens said that he would practice Trevor Ariza, a rookie swingman, and Tim Thomas, the starting small forward, at the shooting guard position and that they could replace Houston if he needs to come out. "Everything is a possibility," Wilkens said.
The Knicks' practice went late Friday, because Wilkens wanted to to prepare for the Bobcats.