Knicks look for answers on defense with Mitchell Robinson sidelined by injury

Jan 20, 2023;  Atlanta, Georgia, USA;  New York Knicks center Jericho Sims (45) grabs a rebound over Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) during the second half at State Farm Arena.

Jan 20, 2023; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New York Knicks center Jericho Sims (45) grabs a rebound over Atlanta Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter (12) during the second half at State Farm Arena. / Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Friday night’s loss to Atlanta was not pretty.

Despite the team shooting 59 percent from the field, they gave up 139 points to Trae Young, Dejounte Murray and the Hawks. That’s the second most points the Knicks have given up this season.

The most? That 145-135 ugly loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. In that game, the Knicks also didn’t have Mitchell Robinson, just like Friday. A lot has been made of Robinson’s contributions to this Knicks team that has seen improvement in year three of coaching Tom Thibodeau‘s estate.

Those contributions were sorely missed against the Hawks especially on the defensive end and on the boards.

“You give up 139, and credit to them, but we’re not going to be able to win a game like that,” Thibodeau said after the game. “Liked our offense a lot, but right from the start there was no defensive urgency or mindset.”

The Hawks seemingly had any shot they wanted, whether it was driving to the hoop, taking a mid-range jumper or three. Atlanta made 64.7 percent from within the arc, which is 10 percentage points higher than the league average.

Despite that, Julius Randle put the team on his back — scoring 17 of his 32 points in the third quarter — to keep the game close heading into the fourth quarter. But not having Robinson really showed.

With Robinson in the lineup not only would he have helped defend the paint, allowing his teammates to guard the arc, but his rebounding is at the top of the league, and in the past has allowed the Knicks to get second and third opportunities every possession . The Knicks were outrebounded, 34-39.

The big man is averaging 8.9 rebounds per game this season and 1.8 blocks per game, which ranks fifth overall in the NBA. He also leads the NBA in box outs per game (3.4) and is among the league-leaders in total contested shots, contested two-point shots and screen assists.

In their first game without Robinson, Thibodeau chose to go with Jericho Sims to start with Isaiah Hartenstein staying with the second unit to keep a semblance of normalcy.

Sims, who was out of Thibodeau’s rotation, will be looked upon to help out with the defense and rebounding. In his first test, Sims scored a career-high 12 points and picked up eight rebounds (three offensive), but he didn’t have the presence the 7-foot, 240-pound center has.

While Sims will likely gain a bit of that in the coming games if Thibodeau sticks with him, it’ll be on the rest of his teammates to help out on defense and the boards.

“We’ve been a good rebounding team all year. Right now we’re not playing great defense so we have to get back to that,” Thibodeau said. “Rebounding is not a one-man proposition, it’s a team effort. We need everyone rebounding. When we’re doing that we’re a good rebounding team. When we rely on one or two people we’re not.”

The Knicks’ stars echoed their coach’s sentiments.

“We have to be tighter on [the defensive] end,” Randle said. “Keep the ball out of the paint. We didn’t rebound well today. We have to be tied together. Our defense is a team thing. When we’re all on a string and playing for each other, we’re good.”

Jalen Brunsonwho scored 19 points on Friday, added, “[Mitch is] a big part of what we do. It’s a next-man-up mentality and we have to cover those bases. We have to be able to play a lot harder and do things to the best of our abilities and stick together and make up for it until he gets back.”

Robinson is set to be re-evaluated in three weeks. The Knicks will try to hold onto their spot in the Eastern Conference until he gets back.

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