The surging Knicks have won six of eight games since starting center Mitchell Robinson broke his hand, moving above .500 this late in any season for the first time since 2012-13 and into fourth place in the Eastern Conference with Sunday’s convincing win in Detroit.
They have done so with a “next-man-up” philosophy under coach Tom Thibodeau and regular contributions throughout their roster, led by first-time All-Star forward Julius Randle.
Former lottery pick Nerlens Noel also has filled in more than ably for Robinson, particularly logging heavy minutes for the Knicks (18-17) over the past two games with backup center Taj Gibson also sidelined with a sprained ankle.
“Well, one, I’m never happy. Two, I always think we can do better,” Thibodeau said when asked Sunday night if he’s been pleased with Noel’s contributions. “I’m proud of Nerlens for being ready, which we knew he would be. And then we have a lot of other guys stepping up. I don’t think you replace a guy like Mitchell individually.
“We have to do it collectively. If we play hard, we play smart, we play together, we can find a way to win. That’s what I want us to do. And whenever someone else is called upon, someone goes into the rotation, just be ready, get in there and get the job done. That’s what being a team is all about.”
Before this season, Noel had logged 40 or more minutes in one game three times in his seven-year NBA career, and none since April 2016. All three of those games went to overtime, with one of them reaching double-OT.
The 6-foot-11 Noel played a season-high 41 minutes in Saturday’s win over Indiana, and 40 (rounded up from 39:34) the following night against the Pistons. Through Sunday, he ranked fourth in the NBA with 2.0 blocked shots per game.
Without Robinson and Gibson, Thibodeau also briefly employed a small-ball lineup in each game, with Randle sliding to the middle and either Kevin Knox or rookie Obi Toppin at power forward.
Asked if he’s concerned the Knicks will sacrifice rim protection with the smaller configurations, Thibodeau replied: “I worry about everything. You look at where you are in the game. Are you playing with the lead? You’re looking at what the matchups look like. That’s what I like about our bench. We have guys that can bring things to the game that we need. … I like the versatility where we have guys who can play multiple positions. I think we’re seeing the value of the rim protection when we had Mitch and of course with Nerlens. And then, of course, we ask Julius to do everything.”
Noel and Randle are part of the Knicks’ contingent of Kentucky products, along with Knox and rookie point guard Immanuel Quickley, as well as assistant coach Kenny Payne, a former John Calipari assistant.
Both big men were lottery picks in successive drafts after one season apiece with the Wildcats. Noel was the sixth-overall pick in 2013 and Randle was the seventh selection in 2014.
“Obviously this is my first time being on the same team with him … but just seeing his evolution, I remember playing against him last year, years before, but now it’s just different,” Noel said of Randle after Sunday’s win. “Confidence, All-Star, simply good, he shoots the ball with ultra-confidence.
“I think that’s really taking a real step forward with him to be a leader of this team. Lead by example. Julius is just a fantastic person, fantastic player. I really enjoy playing with him.”
Randle also continues to log heavy minutes, entering Monday in a tie for second in the league with 36.7 per game, behind only Brooklyn’s James Harden (37.5). He averaged 39 minutes in the two weekend victories and joked he would “get some sleep” ahead of Tuesday’s game in San Antonio.
“I feel fine. Honestly, I feel great,” Randle said Sunday night. “My body feels great. That’s why you do all the training in the summer, to get yourself ready for these moments.”