As next contract looms, Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson faces acid test vs Rudy Gobert

All eyes will be on Donovan Mitchell when the Utah Jazz visit the New York Knicks Sunday night in a critical matchup for both teams.

Mitchell, the native New Yorker who grew up in Westchester County, has been perpetually linked to the Knicks ever since they pried away Johnnie Bryant, his mentor in Utah, and Walter Perrin, the draft guru who moved heaven and earth to trade up for the Jazz star on draft night.

But while Mitchell will be the apple of the eye of most Knicks fans on Sunday, their own Mitchell — Mitchell Robinson — will have an acid test that may decide his future with the team.

Robinson’s future is hanging over the Knicks’ cloudy season. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent as his camp, and the Knicks couldn’t agree to an extension. They have until June 30 to strike a deal, and this matchup against the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert will carry much weight.

Gobert was absent when Robinson dominated whatever was left in the Jazz frontline last month. Robinson went off for a career-high 21 rebounds, 19 points, three blocks, and two steals in a performance worthy of a lucrative multi-year extension.

That’s the Robinson conundrum. Against backup bigs, he is a dominant force. But against elite big men, he still has a lot to prove.

Robinson had a zero-point dud against Bam Adebayo nearly three weeks after his career night in Salt Lake City. He also fouled against Karl-Anthony Towns in January, producing only six points and eight rebounds in a Knicks’ loss. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic toyed around him also last January. His four-point and six-rebound effort was a head-scratcher.

On Sunday night, Robinson will brace for a big test. Gobert is coming off four straight monster games. His last two led to Jazz’s back-to-back win.  He had 14 points, 20 rebounds, and four blocks against the Bulls last Wednesday. Gobert gobbled up the Los Angeles Clippers two nights later with 16 points, 19 assists, and two blocks.

For his part, Robinson came up big Friday night against the Washington Wizards. He churned up 15 points and 12 rebounds after a pair of duds against Brooklyn and Portland. Robinson played a pivotal in the fourth quarter, where the Knicks built a 15-point lead and held on for a three-point win. He scored seven points, made all three free throws, and grabbed three rebounds.

“Huge, huge, huge,” Thibodeau said of Robinson’s performance against the Wizards. “Making those two free throws, those effort plays inspire your team. Our rebounding has been off the charts. That’s a big part of winning.”

The Knicks have won five of their last seven games, with Robinson producing four double-doubles. He had five over their last eight games. The Knicks have been the top defensive team in the league over their last seven games, netting 102.6 defensive rating in that span. Robinson was a huge part of it, and the Knicks’ found a stable backup in rookie Jericho Sims, who is holding up his own.

“Mitch has great feet. I think there are situations that allow us to switch. We can trap. Jericho has great feet. And I thought Jericho’s minutes were very productive,” Thibodeau said.

Sims averaged 2.9 points and 6.3 rebounds in only 14.8 minutes over the Knicks’ last seven games. But the Knicks have been winning the Sims minutes, outscoring their opponents by 7.1 points. In contrast, Robinson has a negative 1.0 net rating despite his big numbers: 8.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks.

Robinson and Sims will take turns on Gobert. But Robinson, with his next contract hanging in the balance, is expected to show up with a big chip on his shoulder.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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