New York coach Tom Thibodeau looked like a genius after another tweak in the lineup led to a rousing Knicks win on the road.
Mitchell Robinson played with an edge in his first game since being yanked out of the starting lineup. Robinson produced his fourth double-double of the season and his best game since the opening night. He had 11 points and 14 rebounds, eight coming off the offensive glass. His activity on defense — two steals and three blocks — helped the Knicks edge out Spurs, 11-7 in transition points. The Spurs came into the game averaging a sixth league-best 14.6 fastbreak points.
“I need to build that flame back before I broke my hand and my foot. You know, trying to get back to myself,” said Robinson, who embraced his new role as he works his way back into shape.
Robinson entered halfway through the first quarter and quickly made his presence felt. Fresh off the bench, he quickly grabbed two offensive rebounds.
“As soon as I came in, I was happy coming off the bench and getting out there. I had a smile on my face. I just want to goddamn hoop,” Robinson said.
A couple of minutes later, he stole the ball and blocked a Spurs’ shot. His first basket came at the 1:30 mark of the opening quarter in a classic Robinson shot — a putback. He crashed the floor on the way down but quickly picked himself up and sprinted back to defense.
“There’s no substitute for hustle,” Thibodeau said. “Hustle plays can change things for you.”
Those energy plays from a fresh Robinson sparked the Knicks to snap out of a three-game skid. The second unit with Robinson was +10.6 in 72 possessions entering the game, according to Cleaning The Glass. The Knicks’ bench outscored their Spurs’ counterpart by 10.
Thibodeau was impressed with Robinson’s play, especially his defense against Spurs’ pick and roll.
“His activity, high energy, and focus. [The Spurs] were very good at executing pick and roll. They put you in tough positions and it requires you to be disciplined and read the ball correctly. I thought he was terrific,” Thibodeau said of Robinson. “And the second, third effort protecting the rim, making his decisions at the appropriate time and the offensive rebounding was huge.”
Thibodeau’s decision to insert Noel in the starting unit isn’t a knock on Robinson. It was meant to help Robinson work on his conditioning without the pressure of matching up against starting centers around the league. Robinson viewed the demotion as hitting two birds in one stone.
“I’m still getting my conditioning in and also like helping the team,” Robinson said. “With them running, it really pushes me to run too. So that helps a lot [with my conditioning].”
Nerlens Noel only had two points as a starter, but it didn’t matter as RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Alec Burks combined for 65 points. Noel did the little things and dirty stuff. He grabbed nine rebounds and dished out three assists, and set screens.
Robinson couldn’t care less who starts between him and Noel.
“I just wanted to go out there and play hard regardless. We just needed to start to win. That’s what we were all talking about, so we came out with a different approach,” Robinson said.
Thibodeau view both Robinson and Noel in the same light.
“Both of those guys are invaluable to us,” Thibodeau said. “We learned that last year. Mitch was playing great prior to his injury and then Nerlens stepped in and he killed it the whole second half of the season. So we feel strongly about both guys. So we just wanted a different look and those guys are interchangeable.”
Robinson, Noel, Taj Gibson, and Jericho Sims have a strong bond. They work out together, and Thibodeau added: “They’re all willing to help each other.”
That support system had helped Robinson survive two serious injuries. Before his first injury last season, Robinson was ascending as one of the most promising young big men in the league. He averaged 8.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.6 blocks per game in 26 starts before breaking his right hand. He led the league in field goal percentage with 74.2% in the previous season, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s single-season record.
“Before I broke my hand, I was in pretty good shape,” Robinson said.
Robinson wasn’t lying. He was on his way to one of his best games with 10 points and 14 rebounds in 20 minutes in the first half when he suffered a fractured right hand late in the second quarter against the Wizards.
“I kind of need to get back to playing like that, with that edge,” he said.
Robinson got it back with the Knick bench mob. Thibodeau optimized his minutes on the floor. Robinson played less but produced more.
When asked about how Robinson took his decision, Thibodeau responded in jest: “Cartwheels.”
Thibodeau should be the one doing cartwheels after another masterstroke that led to Robinson’s masterclass off the bench.
“The thing is we’ve got a great group of guys. And look, this is the challenge of every team for every season is to figure it out, to solve problems,” Thibodeau said. “So [you do] whatever is best for the team.”
Just when the world starts to cave in, Thibodeau keeps on finding an ace up his sleeve to keep the Knicks afloat. He’s starting to figure out his reconfigured team. It helps that his players are receptive to the tough decisions he made in the past couple of weeks.
Robinson gleaned on Kemba Walker’s professionalism in dealing with his demotion.
“I’ve said before that we’ve got a number of guys who are coming off the bench that are probably starters in other places. And then we got some starters that are not getting really starters minutes, but they’re sacrificing their minutes,” Thibodeau said.
“So everyone is sacrificing something, and we have some guys right now who aren’t in the rotation that are good players. To be a good team, you need that type of sacrifice. Everyone has to put the team first.”
Thibodeau solved another Knicks puzzle with Robinson’s muscle and hustle. There’s no telling this would be the last. But Thibodeau seems up to the task.
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