Knicks weather Mitchell Robinson’s absence with Isaiah Hartenstein’s renaissance

Isaiah Hartenstein, New York Knicks

When the New York Knicks were rolling to a 15-8 turnaround with the league’s second-best defense from early December to mid-January, Isaiah Hartenstein became an afterthought.

Rumors started flying around that his former team, Los Angeles Clippers, would like to reunite with him. National media was going after Tom Thibodeau for misusing Hartenstein.

So when Mitchell Robinson went down with a thumb injury on Jan. 18, a pale gloom hung over the Knicks.

They started life without their defensive anchor with two straight losses, three if you count the road loss in Washington, where Robinson suffered the injury.

Over their first two full games without Robinson, their second-best defense (110.0 defensive rating) suddenly crashed into the bottom two (138.2 defensive rating) as Jericho Sims and Hartenstein struggled to fill in Robinson’s big shoes.

The Knicks have recovered since, winning eight of their last 12 games as their defense improved to 15th (115.4 defensive rating).

Thanks in part to Hartenstein’s strong play.

Over the course of Robinson’s absence, Hartenstein averaged 8.2 rebounds, 5.6 points, 1.4 assists and 1.3 blocks, and a plus-4.9 net rating. Zooming in to the last 12 games, Hartenstein’s net rating increased to plus-6.4 with a slight uptick in rebounding (8.9) and scoring (6.3).

“I mentioned this other night, the big thing is anytime someone goes out, and you hate to see anybody be injured, it’s an opportunity for someone else to step in and grow,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I think Jericho getting into that role has really been helpful for him and for us. I said this earlier, I love the depth we have at that position.”

Sims is the starter, averaging 6.5 rebounds and 4.0 points, but Thibodeau leans on Hartenstein to finish games.

“I don’t want to overlook the contributions Isaiah has made. Isaiah has found a really good rhythm. He’s playing really well on both sides of the ball. So we’re getting really good production out of that position.”

Robinson is progressing to make a return sometime after the All-Star break.

Sims will likely return to his old spot as the third-string center. It will be crucial for Hartenstein to sustain his form when Robinson returns.

“I think it’s understanding what goes into winning,” Thibodeau said on how did the Knicks were able to weather Robinson’s absence. “No one could really do what Mitch does. There are things he does that are very unique unto himself. But we’re all capable of playing with team defense. We’re all capable of rebounding the ball so collectively, we can replace some of the things that he does.”

Hartenstein, Sims, and Julius Randle have done tremendous job in keeping the Knicks afloat in the rebounding department without Robinson.

“I think the rebounding has been through the roof. I think that’s been one of the big parts of our winning,” Thibodeau said.

During their 15-8 stretch, the Knicks led the league in rebounding (49.0), including in the offensive glass (14.3). Robinson was the second-best offensive rebounder in the league behind Memphis Grizzlies center Steven Adams.

Over their last 14 games without Robinson, there was no drastic drop-off in that department — 44.9 rebounds (7th) and 11.7 offensive rebounds (8th).

“Our defense is coming. It’s still not where it needs to be. But we’re improving,” Thibodeau said.

It was evident on Wednesday’s win against the Atlanta Hawks when Hartenstein came up with three swats.

Josh Hart may have solidified their perimeter defense and boosted the Knicks’ bench. But Hartenstein’s recent strides have fortified their depth at the center once Robinson returns to form.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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