Knicks begin life without Mitchell Robinson with easy victory over Rockets

Nerlens Noel picked up the slack on defense while the 35-year old Taj Gibson turned back the clock and was spinning like he was 18.

Tom Thibodeau couldn’t ask for more as the New York Knicks’ collective effort enabled them to ace their first test without their starting center Mitchell Robinson.

On the day they learned that Robinson, who fractured his right hand, would be out for at least a month, the New York Knicks flaunted their depth in a huge 121-99 win against the Houston Rockets.

Their backup centers turned in inspired performances that more than filled up Robinson’s absence.

Noel collected 10 points, six boards, and two swats in his first start of the season, while Gibson added four points, including a beautiful spin drive to the basket off a Derrick Rose assist. He added five rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench.

“They’re both great pros. You know they’re always ready whatever comes their way,” said Thibodeau praising his backup big men.

“Taj’s motor is an asset because it doesn’t need five minutes to warm up in the game. Once he’s in the game, he’s going. Nerlens is terrific in terms of the rim protection defensively, pick and roll defense and then putting pressure on the rim. And oftentimes, you didn’t see the value of that because it doesn’t show in the statistics of him going hard to the rim. But what it does is that it opens up shots for people. You can’t overlook that,” Thibodeau added.

Julius Randle was a steady presence in the starting unit as he came one rebound short of a double-double (22 points, nine rebounds, and two assists).

But it was the electric backcourt tandem of Rose and Immanuel Quickley once again who stepped on the gas.

Save for an anxious moment in the third quarter when the Rockets came within five, the Knicks threw a fun party at The Garden in the second night of a back-to-back.

The Knicks’ second unit quickly sucked the air out of the Rockets that kept them grounded.

Rose had another impactful role off the bench with 16 points and three assists while Quickley hit four triples en route to his fifth 20-point performance in his young career. Quickley, the 25th pick of the Draft, tied Randle with 22 points while the Knicks’ lottery pick Obi Toppin scored 11 and put on the exclamation point with a vicious alley-oop dunk off a Kevin Knox lob pass.

Eric Gordon and John Wall combined for 50 points for the Rockets, who were missing Victor Oladipo and Christian Wood. They got little help from the rest of the team.

The Knicks’ second unit, led by the Rose-Quickley tandem, outscored their Rockets’ counterpart, 58-30.

“The balance of our team (was the difference). Our bench has given us a big lift. You need that in a game like this. Like tonight, we’re on a back-to-back, and they were waiting for us. I thought our energy was terrific,” Thibodeau said.

It was their second straight blowout win as they continue their steady climb in the standings. Their 13th win in 28 games has enabled them to move up to seventh in the Eastern Conference.

The Knicks hope to sustain their winning form when they host the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks bracing for worst-case scenario with Mitchell Robinson’s injury

Next man up!

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau has no other recourse but to lean on Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson as the next men up to fill up the gaping hole vacated by Mitchell Robinson.

The 23-year old Robinson, the Knicks’ defensive anchor, suffered a fractured right hand in the Knicks’ 109-101 win over the Washington Wizards Friday night. He hurt his right hand when his hand collided with Julius Randle’s elbow while going for a rebound. Robinson had 10 points, 14 rebounds, and four steals in 20 minutes before he left.

(Editor’s note: ESPN Insider Adrian Wojnarowski reported minutes after this story came out that Robinson will undergo sugery and is expected to be out four to six weeks).

Robinson injury explained

A New York City-based Performance Physical Therapist & High-Performance Consultant had a dimmer outlook before Wojnarowski’s report.

“I watched the tape of the play. It looks like [Robinson] sustained the fracture in a wrist extended position, which is most commonly associated with distal radial fractures,” Dr. Ernest S. Eusebio told Empire Sports Media.

Dr. Eusebio, who has worked with NBA, MLB, NFL athletes, and Olympians, is the founder of the Wolves Performance & Lifestyle Collective, an all-encompassing high-performance consultancy providing solutions in Professional Sport, Entertainment, & Fortune 500. He is also an awarded clinician by the American Health Council (Best in Patient Care).

Dr. Eusebio explained that there are several types of that injury.

“But typically they all involve fractures or displacement of the local structures proximal to the distal radius. Bones typically heal within a 6-8 week time frame, but high-level rim protectors, like Mitch, who have to consistently use their hands to anchor defense and finish plays at the rim, might need to undergo specialized performance physical therapy for about 10-12 weeks to feel normal again,” Dr. Eusebio added.

After Wojnarowski’s report came out, Dr. Eusebio said that “historically, the 4-6 weeks is the timeline of clearance to run through some practice time.”

“They found a fourth metacarpal fracture. Better outlook than a true distal radial fracture,” Dr. Eusebio explained. “It’s still the same region of the hand.”

Thibodeau doesn’t want to dwell on the negative as the Knicks are in the thick of the fight for a playoff spot this season. Entering Saturday’s home game against the Houston Rockets, the Knicks are on the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference with their 12-15 record.

Life without Robinson

Thibodeau will lean on their depth, and Kevin Knox, whose status he earlier described as situational, may find his way back into the rotation.

 

“We’ll have some flexibility. We could play smaller,” Thibodeau said after last night’s win in Washington.

“I like what Taj gives us. Obviously, the great value and the things that Mitch brought to the team was the defensive component, and I feel that Nerlens does many of those things extremely well. And of course, Taj, that’s been his strength throughout his career. So I don’t want to lose that piece of it. But I like the way Obi’s coming on. He’s giving us good minutes. So we have that option. We can downsize and can play Kevin (Knox) at the 4. Play Julius at the 5. There’s a number of things that we can do,” he added. 

Collective effort

Thibodeau was using a tight 10-man rotation before Robinson’s injury.

Noel is usually the first center off the bench to spell Robinson. He anchored the Knicks’ defense in the second half last night, and he is expected to replace Robinson in the starting lineup. He had four points, four rebounds, and three blocks in 16 minutes, while Gibson is averaging 7.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench since Derrick Rose’s arrival.

“I like the versatility of the team. But anytime you lose a player of Mitch’s caliber, we have to make sure we’re playing hard. We can’t replace that individually. We have to do it collectively, and everyone has gonna have to step up,” Thibodeau stressed. 

Life without Robinson begins today when they go up against the undermanned Houston Rockets, who will be missing key players Victor Oladipo (sore right foot) and Christian Wood (ankle sprain). Veteran bruiser PJ Tucker is questionable for the Rockets.

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Knicks rout Wizards but lose Mitchell Robinson to injury

Mitchell Robinson

The New York Knicks caught a break when the Washington Wizards opted to rest their superstar guard Bradley Beal on their Friday night matchup.

The Knicks, as expected, rolled to a 109-91 win and improved to 12-15 in the season. But they also caught a tough break with center Mitchell Robinson going down with a fractured right hand along the way.

Robinson was on pace to a monster performance when the injury happened in the second quarter. He hurt his right hand when his hand collided with Julius Randle’s elbow while going for a rebound. He had 10 points, 14 rebounds, and four steals in 20 minutes before he left.

Robinson will be re-evaluated upon their return in New York, where the Knicks are set to host the Houston Rockets in Madison Square Garden.

Randle bounces back

Even without Robinson in the second half, the Knicks still dominated the game, with Randle flashing his All-Star form and Derrick Rose pushing the pace.

Randle bounced back from a sub-par game against Miami with his fifth 20-point, 15-rebound game of the season, tying Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic. Only Cleveland’s Andre Drummond had more of those games with seven, per ESPN Stats & Info.

Randle paced the Knicks with 24 points, 18 rebounds, and four assists. His three-pointer with 7:27 left in the third quarter quelled a Washington rally, giving New York a six-point breather.

The Knicks were never seriously threatened the rest of the way and led by as many as 25.

Potent bench

The Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley backcourt tandem again provided the spark off the bench.

The Knicks’ second unit outscored the Wizards’ bench, 49-27.

Rose finished with 14 points and a team-high six assists in 20 minutes. He also added four of the Knicks’ 11 steals. Quickley put up 16 points in 22 minutes. New York’s lottery pick Obi Toppin is also starting to get comfortable with Rose as he came away with eight points on 4-of-5 shooting.

The Knicks’ defense limited the Wizards to just 38.2 percent shooting from the field.

Russell Westbrook led Washington with a near triple-double (23 points, nine rebounds, and 10 assists) but committed five turnovers.

Barrett struggles anew

The Knicks bullied the Wizards inside the paint, 58-42, and they crashed the boards, coming away with 24 second-chance points to Wizards’ seven.

Elfrid Payton was also solid with 12 points on 50 percent shooting in only 23 minutes on the floor.

RJ Barrett continued to struggle with his shot, going 3-for-13 for just eight points. It was the second time in the last three games he failed to score in double digits.

Next man up

With Mitchell expected to miss extended time, the Knicks will count on Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson to hold the fort. Noel and Gibson combined for 10 points and seven rebounds.

“It was probably the best first half of the year for [Mitchell]. Obviously, we know how important he is to the team. And anytime someone gets hurt, you certainly feel for him. But we have to be ready for the next one as you know, the games keep on coming,” Thibodeau said after the game.

“I thought Nerlens stepped in and did a good job in the second half. And that’s the great value of having a guy like Taj on the roster. So the next man up! We have to circle the wagons and be ready to go.”

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INJURY: Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson suffers serious right-hand injury

New York Knicks, Mitchell Robinson

While the New York Knicks were dominating the Washington Wizards on Friday evening, starting center Mitchell Robinson suffered a significant right-hand injury. After exiting the game toward the end of the second quarter, Robinson was seen holding his hand and shaking it, in obvious pain.

The Knicks have confirmed that Robinson suffered a fractured right hand and will be re-evaluated tomorrow in New York.

Prior to going down, Robinson was averaging 8.4 points per game, 3.5 offenses rebounds, and 8.2 total rebounds. He was shooting a career-low .653 from the field but was dominant before being pulled against Washington.

In just the first half, Robinson scored 10 points and recorded 14 rebounds, including five offensive rebounds. An unfortunate turn of events, as Robinson was gaining momentum and positive growth in Tom Thibodeau’s scheme. Fractures can keep players out for weeks, so we will have to see what the doctors say about the injury before determining a timeline for return.

Robinson denies he’s unhappy with the Knicks: “I like my role”

Mitchell Robinson allayed fears and the rampant speculation of his unhappiness with the New York Knicks.

Talking for the first time since the controversial tweet he posted and quickly deleted the other night, Robinson denied it has nothing to do with the Knicks.

“It was like a personal thing,” Robinson told reporters after the Knicks’ morning shootaround.

“So I really don’t even want to talk about that. It’s just something that’s going on in my life. And I’ll leave that alone,” the 23-year old center added.

Robinson’s deleted tweet said, “One day, they’ll let me play.”

The controversial tweet came after their second-half meltdown in a road loss to the Utah Jazz. In that game, Robinson only scored seven points on four field-goal attempts while adding eight rebounds and two blocks in 31 minutes.

His Jazz counterpart, Rudy Gobert, recently signed to a five-year, $205-million extension, dominated with 18 points, 19 rebounds, and four shot blocks.

Robinson, a second-round pick in 2018, is only earning $1.6 million this year. The Knicks have the option to re-sign him to a new deal or pick up his team option of $1.8 million next year, but that would make him an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2021-22 season.

This season, Robinson has scored almost exclusively on dunks, lobs, and putbacks. Plays have been rarely run through him as he’s being used primarily for rim protection and anchoring the Knicks defense, which is currently the best in the league in points and field goal and three-point percentage allowed.

Robinson’s usage rate decreased from 13.3 to 11.5 this season.

But his much-improved discipline on defense — committing only an average of 2.7 fouls from 3.2 last season — has kept him longer on the floor. He has yet to foul out in 19 games this season.

The 7-foot center’s scoring and shot blocks have dipped a little bit (9.1 points on 66 percent shooting and 1.7 blocks), but he’s averaging career-highs in minutes (29.6), rebounds (8.4), and steals (1.7).

Robinson has yet to attempt a three in his career despite teasing with those shots on social media in the offseason.

He can look up to Joakim Noah’s career trajectory under Tom Thibodeau.

Noah, who has blossomed to become a defensive stalwart under Thibodeau’s watch in Chicago, has experienced a similar situation.

The former Bulls’ center who also played for the Knicks averaged 10.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 0.5 steal, and 1.6 blocks in 30.1 minutes before Thibodeau arrived in Chicago. The following season, Noah averaged 11.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steal, and 1.5 blocks in 32.8 minutes.

Three seasons later, Noah became the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.

After a bumpy start with Thibodeau when he said Robinson could improve in two areas—professionalism and discipline—the young center has worked his way up and earned his coach’s trust. Thibodeau has since been effusive in his praise for Robinson, who is now firmly entrenched in his starting spot despite the presence of veteran Nerlens Noel.

So the speculations of Robinson’s unhappiness with the team are somewhat surprising.

Last week, the ramblings first surfaced on a social media report immediately shut down by his camp.

“100% not true,” Robinson’s trainer Marcell Scott, Jr. told Empire Sports Media when reached for comment.

Scott Jr. added: “He (Robinson) loves the direction the Knicks are heading, plus he loves New York! His new agency and myself (his camp) have absolutely no issues!!!”

Robinson personally said he’s fine with his role with the team despite the limited touches on offense.

“I kind of like my role,” Robinson said. “We’re winning games. Why change it? Know what I mean? Anything that I could do to help win more would be great, but I just want to keep it consistent. We’re doing pretty good right now, so why change?”

Despite their current three-game losing streak, the Knicks are one of the season’s big surprises with an 8-11 start. And Robinson has been a big part of that defensively.

When asked if he thought he could expand his game similar to Andre Drummond, whom he will defend tonight for the fifth time since the preseason, Robinson answered with a focus on the Knicks.

“I know I can defend. I don’t really compare myself to other players,” he said. “I mean, I’m worried about our team. Other players, they can talk about whatever they want to talk about. I’m just talking about us as Knicks,” said Robinson, who grabbed his practice jersey to emphasize the Knicks printed on the center.

Robinson feels no insecurity with his game and role with the team. It’s the Knicks’ turn to make him feel secured with a contract extension next summer.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks Mitchell Robinson displays frustration over Tom Thibodeau’s expectations via deleted tweet

New York Knicks, Mitchell Robinson

Every player has a specific role on any given team, and the New York Knicks have embodied a new culture and style of play this season after hiring head coach Tom Thibodeau. His focus on defense has proved to be a significant factor in the Knicks’ minor success, as they currently sit at 8-11 on the year. With a competitive game against the Cleveland Cavaliers coming up on Friday evening, we should anticipate another hearty performance.

However, sometimes new styles and the expectations that come with them can create distrust in some players. Specifically, Center Mitchell Robinson has worked admirably to improve his shooting this past off-season, and he’s waiting for an opportunity to unlock his talents. Nonetheless, Thibodeau expects him to be a premium interior defender, focusing on defense rather than scoring.

Robinson tweeted out his frustration before immediately deleting the message: “One day they’ll let me play.”

Robinson isn’t indicating his playing time, as he’s averaged 29.6 minutes per game. However, he’s only averaging 9.1 points, compared to 15 last season. He’s also attempting one less shot per contest, indicating a change in focus.

“I’m waiting on the opportunity,” Robinson said in Boston. “I’ll continue to play my role when it presents itself. When that time comes, I know I can shoot.”

The New York Knicks need to continue focusing on defense, and Robinson is a massive part of that plan:

As a 7-foot Center, Robinson is expected to be a shot-blocker and interior defender, but he has other goals in mind.

Thibodeau, on the other hand, is sticking to his guns. Robinson’s lack of shooting hasn’t come up in conversation, and his old school style doesn’t give much value to Twitter posts. If Robinson has a concern, Thibodeau expects him to address it face-to-face. If he hasn’t, this doesn’t seem to be a major issue, and I wouldn’t expect to see Robinson taking more shots in the coming days. His ability to draw attention to the paint allows for more open shots on the outside as defenses collapse.

“I really don’t pay attention to that stuff,” he said after practice Thursday over Zoom. “And I’ve never coached through the media or social media or whatever that is. My conversations with him, that’s never come up.”

Knicks rout Warriors on Barrett’s career night

RJ Barrett grew up watching Andrew Wiggins in Canada.

“He’s a legend back home,” Barrett said.

In their first NBA matchup, Barrett showed his time has come as he upstaged Wiggins in leading the New York Knicks to a 119-104 rousing win on the road.

Barrett set the tone for the rout with 14 of his career-high 28 points in the opening quarter.

Wiggins, a former No.1 pick, finished with 17 points and a team-worst plus/minus -18.

But more than Barrett’s scoring explosion, the Knicks once again flaunted their league’s top defense holding the Warriors to just 38 percent from the field and limiting them to 9-of-38 from three.

It was a wire-to-wire win for the Knicks, who drew six players in double figures in a well-balanced attack.

Barrett shot 10-of-17 and 6-of-8 free throws in another impressive shooting night. He’s now averaging 21.8 points on 51/39/87 shooting splits in his last five games.

Mitchell Robinson had a season-high 18 points after a scoreless first half with eight rebounds and two shot blocks. Julius Randle flirted with a triple-double (16 points, 17 rebounds, 9 assists), while Elfrid Payton was outstanding on both ends of the floor.

Payton held Curry scoreless for the first eight minutes of the game that threw the Warriors’ offense in disarray.

It didn’t help that Draymond Green got tossed in the second quarter after picking up his second technical foul.

Curry was still able to get 30 points but was held to just two in the pivotal third quarter where the Knicks broke the game wide open.

The Warriors got within six at the break and were still within striking distance halfway through the third quarter. Then the trio of Barrett, Robinson, and Randle turned a Knicks’ 68-63 lead into a dozen lead, 79-67.

The rookies took over from there.

Immanuel Quickley fed Obi Toppin for the first of his two baseline slams. Then Quickley quickly followed it up with a pullup jumper that pushed the Knicks’ lead to 16 in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter.

The Knicks never looked back.

With their third straight win, the Knicks climbed to .500 once more. It took them 32 games to reach eight wins last season.

But this season feels and looks different. Thanks to Tom Thibodeau, who is squeezing the most out of this overachieving roster.

The Knicks started the game assisting nine of their first 10 shots. They finished with 24 on 38 field goals made.

The Knicks hope to extend their three-game win streak when they continue their West Coast trip in Sacramento on Friday night.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Knicks: Mitchell Robinson’s trainer shuts down rumor

New York Knicks, Mitchell Robinson

As the New York Knicks continue to delay Mitchell Robinson’s contract extension, naturally, rumors will sprout about his future with the team.

On Tuesday night, a rumor surfaced online that Robinson’s camp is not confident that the up-and-coming center will sign an extension with the Knicks.

Kris Pursiainen of the Knicks Film School and a former Sports Illustrated writer has heard from a source familiar with the situation that this might be Robinson’s last season with the Knicks.

Marcell Scott, Jr., Robinson’s trainer, quickly shut down the rumor.

“100% not true. He [Robinson] loves the direction the Knicks are heading, plus he loves New York,” Scott Jr. told Empire Sports Media in a text message. “His new agency and myself (his camp) has absolutely no issues!!!”

Robinson has recently dumped super-agent Rich Paul and joined the Wasserman group, his sixth agency in three years.

The 23-year old center is due for $1.6 million this season, a bargain deal considering his value on the court. So far, Robinson has been outplaying his contract.

Last summer, ESPN’s Front Office Insider Bobby Marks broke down the contentious issue surrounding Robinson’s contract extension that may explain why the Knicks are holding out.

“If the Knicks extend him the maximum of a projected three years, $35 million, his new salary would replace the $1.9 million cap hold for 2022. The Knicks could also amend the contract to decline his option in 2021-22 and sign him to a four-year, $50 million extension. In either scenario, New York would lose up to $10 million in cap flexibility,” Marks wrote.

“However, if there is no extension in place, the Knicks could lose him for nothing because he will become an unrestricted free agent in 2022.”

Robinson appears to enjoy the faith of the new coaching staff, particularly head coach Tom Thibodeau after a rough start during the summer. After Robinson skipped the second part of their OTA due to personal reasons, Thibodeau posited during the training camp that Robinson has to grow in two areas—professionalism and discipline.

Robinson started the preseason on the bench, but he has worked his way up to the starting unit.

When the season started, Thibodeau pivoted to using Robinson more than veteran Nerlens Noel, who was out for a significant time due to injury. Thibodeau has been effusive in his praise ever since, describing his young center as the Knicks’ defensive anchor.

“You guys haven’t seen it yet, but it’s coming,” said Thibodeau talking about Robinson’s rise unprompted after the Knicks’ big win on the road in Indiana last January 3.

In the Knicks’ stunning 7-8 start, Robinson is averaging 8.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.8 blocks, and a career-high 30 minutes of playing time. What’s striking is his much-improved discipline on the defensive end.

His shot-blocking rate may be down, but he’s been altering shots and defending the rim with better footwork. He has managed to cut down on his fouls to 2.7 compared to 3.2 and 3.3, respectively, in his first two seasons.

The way Thibodeau has talked about Robinson, it’s clear that he’s a big part of the Knicks’ future.

The inevitable would come. Robinson will get paid in his next contract. And that should come next summer.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks need quick fix after second straight loss

New York Knicks, Julius Randle

They say home is where the heart is.

But the New York Knicks never found their heart in another dispiriting loss at home.

On Sunday night, the Denver Nuggets’ superior talent not only overwhelmed but also outworked the Knicks in a 114-89 drubbing at The Garden.

The magic of the Knicks’ strong start to the season is starting to fade as they looked lethargic for the second straight game.

Despite losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder last Friday, the Knicks entered Sunday night’s game third in opponent field goal percentage (43.4%) and second in opponent 3-point field goal percentage (30.1%).

That vaunted defense, which propelled them to a 5-3 start, was missing at home.

They looked tired and disengaged.

There was nothing they could do with the Nuggets firing on all cylinders. Denver shot 53.6 percent overall and 42.9 percent from deep.

Nikola Jokic led six Nuggets in double figures. The Serbian big man had 22 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists in 30 minutes.

In contrast, the Knicks’ offense continued to sputter. It was the second straight game they put up only 89 points. It would have been acceptable if this was in the grind-it-out 90s.

Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone, who came from the same Jeff Van Gundy/Don Chaney coaching tree as Tom Thibodeau, threw the Knicks off rhythm with a combination of zone and sticky man-to-man defenses.

After a Julius Randle three-pointer put the Knicks ahead briefly, 16-14, the Nuggets countered with a 7-0 run. And they were never seriously threatened the rest of the way.

Randle and Mitchell Robinson were the only Knicks players who shot above 50 percent.

Randle pumped in 29 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists before sitting out for good in the final 6:56. His fourth assist of the night enabled him to join Oscar Robertson as the only two players in NBA history to record at least 200 points, 115 rebounds, and 70 assists in their team’s first 10 games of the season.

Another silver lining for the Knicks was Robinson, who had zero foul in 38 minutes. The young Knicks’ center had 11 points on a perfect 5-of-5 from the field.

It was just hard to watch the rest of the team, except perhaps an Elfrid Payton scoring outburst in one brief stretch in the third quarter.

Payton finished with 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting and five assists. RJ Barrett continued to plummet. He bled for nine points on 13 shots. It marked the second time this season that he’s been held to single-digit scoring.

The Knicks drew little production from their bench. The Nuggets bench badly outscored them, 54-21.

Immanuel Quickley has officially hit the rookie wall with another dud (4 points, 0-4 field goals). Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox could only muster identical six points on 2-of-6 shooting.

The Knicks, as a whole, could only connect on 42.3 percent of their shots. They were a disheartening 6-for-21 from three.

“The challenge right now is we’re not playing well. We’ve got to fix it. We’re in it together. We have to get out of it together,” Thibodeau said postgame.

They barely have 24 hours to figure out everything as they next face the streaking Charlotte Hornets Monday on the road.

The Hornets have won their last three games with Gordon Hayward rediscovering his old All-Star form while third overall pick LaMelo Ball is finally settling down. Ball just became the youngest player in the league history to log in a triple-double in their Saturday win over the Atlanta Hawks.

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Toppin, Knicks impressive in Thibodeau’s coaching return

New York Knicks, Obi Toppin

Tom Thibodeau triumphantly returned to coaching while rookie Obi Toppin was electrifying in New York Knicks’ 90-84 preseason win against the Pistons Friday night at the Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit.

It didn’t look and feel like a preseason with Thibodeau coaching the Knicks hard in his first game back after nearly two years away from the game. Unveiling a suffocating defense, the new-look Knicks bucked a jittery start and led by as many as 18 points in the third quarter.

Electrifyin’ Toppin

Toppin came off the bench and energized the second unit with his athleticism and boundless energy.

The Brooklyn-born forward had to shrug off rookie jitters after missing his first two shots. He settled down right away and hustled his way to finish with 11 points highlighted by an emphatic dunk off a Kevin Knox feed.

He also grabbed seven rebounds in 20 minutes as Julius Randle’s backup.

“I thought he was very aggressive to start the game. [He] scored the ball, and then there was more attention. For his first game, I thought he did a lot of good things, and he saw when things work a certain way in the first half, sometimes it’s different in the second, and you have to read that as well,” Thibodeau said of Toppin’s first taste of NBA action. “But overall, very good. I loved his aggressiveness.”

RJ Barrett overcame a poor start to lead all scorers with 15 points and five boards. The Canadian wingman missed his first six shots and was 2-for-10 in the first half. But he hit his strides in the third quarter, teaming up with Alec Burks to lead the Knicks’ breakaway from a tight 48-47 halftime score.

The Pistons came charging back in the fourth quarter with their bench led by rookies Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. The home team closed the gap, 85-79, on Stewart layup before Randle’s jumper with 34.8 seconds left clinched the Knicks’ victory.

Randle had a solid all-around game, finishing with 11 points, eight rebounds, and six assists.

Centers of attention

The battle for the starting center spot will be interesting to watch as Nerlens Noel, and Mitchell Robinson alternately played a solid job anchoring the defense.

Noel had 10 points, eight rebounds, and two shot blocks as a starter, while Robinson came off the bench and turned in seven boards, four steals, two blocks, and two points in 22 minutes.

When asked what won Noel the starting job in this game, Thibodeau pointed to Noel’s elite rim protection and finishing at the basket.

“But I’m very pleased with Mitchell as well. So I think when you have two bigs that are like that, it’s a big bonus,” Thibodeau said. “And they’re very similar. I’m not sure who I’m gonna start, but I like both of those guys, and we’ll gonna need them to play well as a team.”

The Knicks’ signature Thibodeau defense held the Pistons to just 32.5 percent from the field. They had 12 steals and six blocks, forcing 22 turnovers and translated that to 19 points. They were also active on the glass, outrebounding the Pistons, 54-41. But the Knicks also got sloppy, and there were times Thibodeau wasn’t happy and even took his mask off to show his displeasure.

Thibodeau coached with a regular-season game intensity yelling and going after the referees after a bad call.

Payton’s job to lose

Elfrid Payton did a solid all-around job at the point, producing 10 points, six rebounds, and seven assists.

Dennis Smith Jr. looked more comfortable with his jumper, hitting a three-pointer in a seven-point effort off the bench.

With Austin Rivers sidelined by a groin injury, Frank Ntilikina spelled Barrett and finished with seven points and five boards.

Thibodeau used 11 players, with the Knicks’ other first-round pick Immanuel Quickley receiving a DNP.

Thibodeau and his staff will continue evaluating the roster when the Knicks play the Pistons again on Sunday at 7 p.m. E.T.

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