Knicks unheralded trio anchors Knicks defensive resurgence

Mitchell Robinson, Quentin Grimes, New York Knicks
Dec 31, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Rockets forward Bruno Fernando (20) is fouled by New York Knicks guard Quentin Grimes (6) as center Mitchell Robinson (23) tries to block the shot also in the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Quentin Grimes watched from the bench when Pascal Siakam torched the New York Knicks with 52 points last month.

On Friday night, he tried to be a difference-maker, helping the Knicks hold the Raptors’ go-to-guy to 18 points on 4 of 14 shooting to snap an 11-game losing skid in Toronto.

But it wasn’t just Grimes who did the dirty work of slowing down the 6-foot-8 Raptors forward.

Siakam missed his lone field goal attempt against Grimes as his primary defender in two and a half minutes, according to NBA’s matchup tracking data.

“That was kind of the first time all game I had to guard, like, Scottie [Barnes] and Siakam down low in the post for most of the game. It’s a different challenge, kind of a different obstacle for me to try to not let him get [to the] middle, force him [to the] base line, because I know I got help from Mitch [Robinson, center] on the back side.”

Quentin Grimes via NY Post

Robinson immensely helped Grimes with Siakam laboring to 1 of 7 shooting in almost six minutes of the Knicks center as his primary defender, per NBA’s matchup tracking data.

“I see [Grimes] out there fighting like that’s what we need. We need everybody to fight, and he’s one of the guys doing it. So, I see him fighting so, of course, I’m gonna come over there to help.”

Mitchell Robinson postgame via Knicks

Immanuel Quickley completed the defensive task, holding Siakam to 1 of 5 shooting.

The trio’s effort in the Knicks’ win that snapped an 11-game losing streak is an encapsulation of how they are anchoring the team’s defensive resurgence.

Over their last 17 games since Dec. 4, New York has vaulted to no. 2 (107.7) in the defensive rating from no. 23 (112.9) during their rocky 10-13 start.

Quickley, Grimes, and Robinson have emerged as the Knicks’ defensive lynchpins. The trio belongs to the team’s top two defensive lineups this season.

Flanked by Miles McBride and Julius Randle, the defensive trio is holding the Knicks’ opponents to 101.1 points per 100 possessions, ranked in the 90th percentile in the league, according to Cleaning The Glass. With Jalen Brunson, that Knicks-vaunted defense slips a bit, but it’s still holding their opponents to 105.1 per 100 possessions, good for the 85th percentile.

Thibodeau’s decision to shorten his rotation was anchored on optimizing their best defensive lineups.

Since Dec. 4, Quickley is averaging 31.7 minutes, slightly skewed by RJ Barrett’s recent injury. Grimes is now firmly entrenched as the Knicks’ starting shooting guard with the sophomore averaging 36.0 minutes over his last 16 games.

Mitchell Robinson jumped from 22.7 to 29.3 minutes of playing time during the Knicks’ 12-5 surge.

But it wasn’t just their defense that has helped the Knicks turn things around. With increased minutes, they have also produced on offense.

Grimes has more than doubled his output. Before Dec. 4, the second-year wing only averaged 5.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 19.6 minutes. Those numbers jumped to 14.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists since then.

Quickley also made a leap from 10.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.0 assists to 14.5 points, 3.9 assists, and 3.6 rebounds over the same span.

Meanwhile, Robinson’s improvement was more felt in the glass, as his rebounding jumped from 7.4 to 10.5 rebounds during the Knicks’ resurgence, while his scoring increased slightly from 7.2 to 8.0 points.

The trio’s two-way play has enabled the Knicks to withstand Barrett’s injury with enough offense led by Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson, who are playing All-Star caliber seasons.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo