Mitchell Robinson remains on track to return to the active lineup after the New York Knicks upgraded his status to questionable ahead of Friday’s road game against the Washington Wizards.
The Knicks have also ruled out veteran Evan Fournier with a non-COVID illness. Fournier is not part of the regular rotation, so his absence will hardly be felt.
Robinson’s return is much anticipated, as the Knicks are much better defensively when he’s on the floor. The Knicks had the league’s second-best defense over their last 23 games before Robinson sustained the thumb injury. Their defense expectedly slipped without him. But despite having the bottom-sixth defense, they punched above their class weight with an 8-6 record during Robinson’s absence.
“I just think it’s the understanding of what goes into winning. You don’t usually replace an individual player. Like no one could really do what Mitch does, the things he does are very unique to himself,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau said after their third straight win before the All-Star break. “But we’re all capable of playing good team defense.”
“We’re all capable of rebounding the ball, so collectively, we can replace some of the things that he does,” added Thibodeau, who pointed out their rebounding and improved defense.
The Knicks ranked ninth in overall rebounding (44.6), offensive rebounding (11.1), and second-chance points (14.7) since Robinson went down with the injury. In the 23-game stretch before Robinson’s injury, the Knicks led the league in those three categories — 49.0 overall rebounds, which include 14.3 from the offensive glass, and 18.8 second-chance points.
Robinson’s return should put the Knicks’ defense back to an elite level. But it may take some time as Thibodeau is in no rush to play his center with starter’s minutes.
“We’ll see how he feels,” Thibodeau said. “But he’s got to go step by step.”
Before the injury, Robinson was in the midst of a career year after signing a four-year, $60 million contract to stay in New York in the offseason. The fourth-year center is averaging a career-best 8.9 rebounds, and he’s tied for second with Atlanta’s Clint Capela in offensive rebounding (4.3) while adding a career-high 1.0 assists and 1.8 blocks in 38 games so far.
His expanding defensive game would be needed in Knicks’ playoff pursuit as they begin the final 22 games sitting in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
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