Nerlens Noel made a timely return for the New York Knicks from his knee injury Saturday afternoon as Mitchell Robinson went down with a head concussion.
Noel produced only two points on two free throws, but his impact was more pronounced on the defensive end with six rebounds and three shot blocks. His huge block on Christian Wood ignited a 9-2 Knicks run in the fourth quarter that transformed an 89-86 deficit into a 95-91 lead. The Knicks never looked back and pulled away for a 107-99 win that improved their record to 9-7 and 4-5 at home.
“Nerlens gives you elite rim protection, great decision-making. [He’s] a multiple-effort guy. So you couldn’t ask for anything more from your center,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He doesn’t give up on plays. He doesn’t give in. So that’s huge.”
Evan Fournier, who broke out of his shooting slump with 19 points, can’t help but marvel at Noel’s elite defense. Fournier had played with All-Star centers Nikola Vucevic with the Orlando Magic and three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert with the France national team. But Noel, he said, is better than Gobert in one aspect on the defensive end.
“Nerls is different defensively against any other big [men] I’ve played with,” Fournier said, “in a sense that he’s really able to impact the ball on a pick and roll with his quick hands. He’s very fast so he can recover to the big that’s actually behind him. So he’s very different.”
“When I think about it, even Rudy (Gobert) when I played with him in the [France] national team, you know he’s actually in the paint. He’s not necessarily up to the task like Nerls can do. [Nerlens] has a special talent on that end. It’s glad to have him back.”
In the last playoffs, Gobert’s perimeter defense, or lack of it, was exposed when the Utah Jazz fell to the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round.
Last season, Noel did not receive any votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race despite averaging a league-third best 2.2 blocks and 1.1 steals. The Knicks re-signed Noel to a $32 million, three-year deal with the last year as a team option despite the snub.
But an assortment of injuries from hip to knees has limited Noel to just five games this season, and he had another close call against the Rockets when he received an elbow from Wood in the third quarter.
With a bloodied mouth, Noel proved sturdy and wound up playing 29 minutes. He welcomed the physicality in his return.
“It’s the way basketball should be played in some sense,” Noel said. “Just being able to play and not worry about the whistle. There’s definitely a level that you have to match as well. So, we just got to know what we’re getting into every night.”
Noel will have a challenging task in the second night of a back-to-back schedule as the Knicks flew to Chicago without Robinson while Taj Gibson is still questionable to play due to a sore groin. Even without Vucevic (out due to health and safety protocols), the Bulls thrived backup center Tony Bradley, who is producing 5.4 points and 5.6 rebounds as a fill-in starter.
Noel will have his hands full guarding the pick and roll and providing elite rim protection on Sunday night in Chicago. The Bulls employ the deadly pick and roll duo of DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, who combine for at least 16 points off those game actions. DeRozan ranks 10th in the league in pick and roll possessions with 9.1 per game, while LaVine is not that far behind with 8.1 per game.
Noel needs to replicate or better his effort in the Knicks’ gut-wrenching win over the Rockets. The 6-foot-10 beanpole center impacted the game on both ends of the floor. He did little things that contributed to the win, like setting screens that helped Alec Burks shoot a career-high-tying six three-pointers.
“Me and AB (Burks), there’s no pick and roll [tandem] like us,” said Noel while seated beside Burks in the postgame interview. “I just have the mindset of setting screens. Don’t change anything. Whatever you need me to do, I’m just gonna do what I have to do and read the game.”
With the Knicks’ frontline getting thinner again, Noel’s health will be crucial as well. But the eight-year veteran center said his knee was in a decent place.
“It wasn’t the best place but I felt good enough to go out there and give what I had,” he explained. “It felt great [to be back]. I have far too much anxiety just sitting there watching as much as I have. I really want to be out there with my guys.”
The Knicks’ frontline situation bears watching as they enter a brutal stretch in their schedule where they will play their next 12 games against playoff contenders, starting with the Bulls.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo