Steve Clifford was going through the bullet points of why his team, in the hunt for a playoff spot, could not put away the lottery-bound Knicks when he stopped at one: Mitchell Robinson, whom the Magic coach said “changed the game.”
Robinson had another eye-catching performance, with 17 points, 14 rebounds, 6 blocks and 3 steals. That’s a stat-line the NBA hasn’t seen from a rookie since David Robinson. “This kid is making history right now,” was how David Fizdale described Robinson’s consecutive double-doubles with 5+ blocks, which joins the likes of Tim Duncan and Yao Ming in rookie dominance.
From the other side of the court, Clifford offered another perspective of the emerging 20-year-old Knicks center.
“Challenging him,” he said, “is not a good idea.”
See how Mitchell Robinson completely obliterated the Magic with an outstanding performance at both ends of the floor in the Knicks' win!
A day after Robinson casually opined that he could average “probably around six” blocks per game, he single-handedly put a stop to Orlando’s dribble penetration with a block party that had the Garden crowd roaring while Clifford implored his guards to stop trying to challenge the athletic big man. On one possession, he blocked a three-point attempt — which is becoming a trademark move — by Aaron Gordon and when Gordon got the ball back and attempted a strong drive to the rim, Robinson knocked that away as well.
“I feel I’m a threat to people,” Robinson said. “I can make people change up their plays, have a different look to the game.”
Robinson’s value is skyrocketing as a major piece in the rebuild. He arrived very raw and a relative unknown after sitting out last season rather than playing in college. This was a project who was going to take time, but acclimated a lot quicker than anyone might have anticipated.
“Every single day he continues to grow and get better,” Fizdale said. “He really applies what you teach him … He has so much room to grow and I’m going to keep my foot way up his butt to make sure he does.”
Fizdale was quick to credit the arrival of DeAndre Jordan, who has been out the last two games with an ankle sprain, for Robinson’s sudden ascension from prospect to producer. In the 10 games since the trade, Robinson is averaging 10.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in 22.8 minutes per game. In the previous 34 games, he averaged 5.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 16.9 minutes.
The other key stat in there involves how he’s adjusted to the NBA rules. Robinson was consistently in foul trouble earlier in the season, which is typical of a rookie big man. He averaged 3.1 fouls per game in those first 34 games. He’s knocked that down to 2.9 fouls per game, but that’s in about 6 more minutes per game. Fizdale is also showing more trust in Robinson to play through the foul trouble and yet stay aggressive enough to make an impact on defense.
But it is rebounding where Robinson has become much more adept than before. He no longer gets caught ball-watching when a shot goes up. He goes after every rebound using his length and high motor. His rebound percentage over the last 10 games is 20.1%, which would be just behind Houston’s Clint Capela (20.6%) for top 10 in the NBA. His offensive rebound percentage in that span is 18.2%, which would lead the NBA (Andre Drummond is at 16.4%).
“If you go back to when DJ came here, look at Mitchell’s play,” Fizdale noted. “It’s from the minute he got here.”
Jordan, for what it’s worth, is 4th in the NBA in Rebound Percentage (23.6%) and 14th in Offensive Rebound Percentage (11.6%). All Robinson needs to do is look at Jordan’s career earnings to see how this is a good business model for him.
It’s also promising for the Knicks, who could keep this protege-mentor duo together as their center rotation for the next few years and bring back a defensive foundation this franchise hasn’t seen in a long, long time.
– The most insane stat of the season: the Knicks bench outscored the Magic bench, 75-7.
– Another notable stat: Rookie Allonzo Trier had 18 points on five field goal attempts. His ability to get into the paint and draw fouls at the rim was on display as he took 10 free throws and made nine. He also made his only attempt from three, which kept him among the top 4 in rookies in three-point shooting (38.1%). Over his last five games, Trier is averaging 14.4 points on 56.8% shooting in 24.9 minutes per game.
– It seems Dennis Smith Jr. and Emmanuel Mudiay are trading the closer role at the point guard position. This time it was back to Mudiay, who led the bench unit with 19 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists in 31:30. Smith, who was a catalyst down the stretch in Sunday’s win over the Spurs, struggled with his shooting (3 for 10) and had a tough time on defense against the speedy DJ Augustin. Smith played just 21 minutes and was -16 with 9 points and 3 assists.
– Fizdale has used countless lineup combinations this season, but none were as mind-blowing as the five-man unit he left on the court for that stirring fourth-quarter comeback. It included two G-League reclamation projects (John Jenkins and Henry Ellenson), an undrafted rookie (Trier), a second round pick who sat out a year (Robinson) and a former lottery pick on his second team (Mudiay). Ellenson, currently on a 10-day, might have been the most surprised of all to be out there. So was his coach. “I didn’t think I’d play him 36 minutes,” Fizdale said, “but he played so well.” Ellenson, who had 13 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists and nailed a huge three with 2:11 to go to give the Knicks a 104-100 lead, said he “looked back a couple of times” at the bench expecting to be subbed out at any moment.
– Ellenson can be added to the list of former first round picks on this roster looking for a second chance. He was taken 18th overall by the Pistons in 2016 — a year the Knicks didn’t have a first rounder due to the Andrea Bargnani trade — but didn’t stick with Detroit. He dominated the G-League, but on Feb. 9, after appearing in just two games at the NBA level this season, the Pistons waived him. Knicks GM Scott Perry saw an opportunity to find another diamond in the rough, so he signed the former Big East Rookie of the Year out of Marquette to a 10-day. Perry believes Ellenson simply lost his confidence as he got lost in the shuffle behind Tobias Harris and then Blake Griffin. “I think his confidence is going to grow,” Fizdale said, “because I’m going to continue to keep filling him up.”
– The Knicks end their four-game homestand on Thursday when they host the Cavaliers. After winning two straight and three out of four coming out of the all-star break, the Knicks are looking at the possibility of matching their season-high winning streak (3), which was Nov. 21-25. That was also the last time they won consecutive games. Those following the lottery standings should note the Cavs (14-47) are one win better than the Knicks (13-48) in the bottom three in the league, with the Suns (12-50) below both. Staying in the bottom three ensures the best chance (14%) at a No. 1 pick. The Bulls (16-45) are two games above the bottom 3 in the 4th spot.
– Anyone else looking forward to a season where we no longer need to talk about lottery standings and winning by losing?
[Coverage Of Knicks-Cavs Gets Under Way Thursday At 7 On MSG & MSG GO.]