Knicks’ defense sags without Mitchell Robinson, fall to Hawks in 3rd straight loss

Julius Randle, New York Knicks
Jan 20, 2023; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) shoots over Atlanta Hawks forward Onyeka Okongwu (17) during the first half at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Hawks center Onyeka Okongwu feasted inside the paint during their 16-1 run at the start of the fourth quarter that floored the New York Knicks.

Without Mitchell Robinson, who underwent successful surgery Thursday to repair his fractured right thumb, the Hawks outshot and outrebounded the Knicks en route to a high-scoring 139-124 win Friday night at State Farm Arena.

Okongwu had six of his 14 points during the pivotal Hawks run that ripped the game wide open. When New York coach Tom Thibodeau finally had enough of the Julius Randle-Obi Toppin frontcourt by reinserting Jericho Sims, the Hawks had already opened a 15-point lead, 120-105, near the halfway mark of the final quarter.

The Knicks never recovered.

Randle scored 17 of his 32 points in the third quarter that kept New York afloat, but his 12-game streak of double-double got snapped with only nine rebounds. No Knicks player pulled down more than nine boards, as they could only grab 34 collectively as a team, 13.7 below their average.

Atlanta’s All-Star backcourt of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray struggled from deep, combining 2 for 11 from the three-point zone. But it did not matter as they repeatedly attacked the rim without Robinson, the Knicks’ defensive anchor, and combined for 56 points and 18 assists.

The 139 points were the second-most points allowed by the Knicks this season, next only to the 145 points they gave up in an embarrassing home loss to Oklahoma City Thunder in early November.

“Credit to [Hawks] that they’re playing great basketball right now, but we’re not gonna be able to win a game like that,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau said. “And so I liked our offense a lot. [We] shot 59% and scored 124. But right from the start, there was no defensive urgency or mindset.”

Jericho Sims finished with 21 points and eight rebounds, starting in place of Robinson, but it was not enough.

Isaiah Hartenstein underwhelmed again, with only two points and six rebounds off the bench. He was part of the Knicks’ larger problem — their second unit continuing to bleed for points that allowed their opponents to wrest control of games. Only Immanuel Quickley again scored in double-digits off the bench with 11 points.

The Knicks fell into the Hawks trap. They tried to match their firepower until they ran out of ammunition against the deeper Hawks team.

Okongwu and Bogdan Bognadovic had 14 apiece to lead Atlanta’s bench, which outscored New York, 39-28.

RJ Barrett (23 points, 9-16 field goals) and Jalen Brunson (19 points, 7-14 field goals, 9 assists) shot well, but they had the two worst plus-minus on the team.

Barrett was -20, and Brunson was -19.

“Right from the start, there was no defensive urgency or mindset.”

New York coach Tom Thibodeau

Quentin Grimes added 10 points, but he was rendered ineffective by two quick fouls and battled foul trouble all game long.

The Knicks could not sustain their sizzling 71 percent shooting (30 of 42 field goals) in the first half.

Their third straight loss kept the Knicks (25-22) glued at the seventh seed. The soaring Hawks (24-22) are now just half game behind them with their fifth straight win.

With Robinson expected to miss at least three weeks, the Knicks have to adjust quickly as they will continue the league’s third-toughest schedule remaining in Toronto against the Raptors on Sunday.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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