Robinson Shines, Defense Struggles for Knicks

The Knicks best defensive player is a 20-year-old rookie who is still learning the pro game. And when asked to assess the team’s issues on defense, especially in defending the three-point shot, he put it in the most elementary terms.

“We be there,” Mitchell Robinson said, “we just don’t be close enough.”

One of Mark Jackson’s favorite sayings during ABC/ESPN broadcasts is “Hand down, man down” but with the Knicks, just putting your hand up doesn’t mean you’re playing defense. David Fizdale flipped out in the third quarter when Mario Hezonja put up the hand with about five feet between he and a wide-open Raptors player, who easily drilled one of the 20 threes that Toronto hit in the game. Fizdale barked at Hezonja from the sideline and then immediately pointed down the bench to get a sub.

Hezonja’s body language after that was terrible. He sulked until the next whistle and then planted himself at the end of the bench.

Fizdale has mostly kept it positive, at least publicly, with his players in this season of 60-plus losses. But he reached a boiling point during this game.

“It don’t have to be all positive,” he said after the game. “And it won’t be positive tomorrow in film session.”

David Fizdale holds his post-game press conference after the Knicks' 117-92 loss to the Raptors at The Garden.

While Fizdale is taking on criticism for the team’s poor defense this season, the coach points to offense as the bigger issue. The Knicks are the worst shooting team in the NBA and don’t have a consistent scorer to get them out of slumps. The poor shooting and offensive struggles, he says, lead to a lack of focus and intensity on defense. It’s a tried and true phenomenon of basketball, especially with young teams. When you struggle on offense, you tend to eventually struggle on defense.

If you have someone who can create offense on a given possession, it can keep the team afloat.

“That’s definitely something that’s missing off our roster,” Fizdale said of the lack of a go-to scorer or playmaker, “but we can’t let missing shots affect our defense.”

So maybe that gets fixed this offseason through another lottery pick and free agency, but you still need to upgrade the mentality of the supporting cast. In other words, along with a scorer and/or playmaker, the Knicks need to find some dogs on defense.

Fizdale said as much before the game when he talked about how the team needs to “fill in the gaps with the type of guys we think can take our defense to the next level.” He suggested the addition of perimeter defenders at the wing areas. “Those kind of guys are the ones that elevate your defense to the next level,” he added.

So beyond the dream of signing a Kevin Durant and/or Kyrie Irving, the Knicks need to consider getting older and a little more rugged if they want to fit Fizdale’s blueprint. That could mean looking at some other free agents, such as Toronto’s Danny Green, the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley, maybe noted Knick-killer Anthony Tolliver or Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza? Older, experienced players who you put around a core of young players and hope the attitude rubs off on them like DeAndre Jordan has on Mitchell Robinson, who wasn’t done offering his take on how to defend the perimeter.

“Get closer to the guy and at least make them dribble,” he said. “Play inside the three-point line and we should be fine.”

Mitchell Robinson speaks with Rebecca Haarlow after recording a season-high 19 points and 21 rebounds in the Knicks' 117-92 loss to the Raptors at The Garden.

In other words, take it personal. That’s how you maintain a streak of 23 straight games with at least two blocked shots, which is now tied with Shaq for the third longest by a rookie in NBA history.

NOTES:

– Despite the blowout, Robinson (19 points, 21 rebounds, two blocks and a steal) had himself a historic game that even he couldn’t believe. When MSG’s Rebecca Haarlow told him his 21-rebound performance was the most by a Knicks rookie in over 50 years (Willis Reed), Robinson replied, “Whoa.” He then added, “Out of 50 years? That’s a long time. That feels great.” Robinson said Jordan was in his ear late in the game to let him know how close he was to a 20-20 game. Robinson missed a free throw late that would have clinched it. Only three other players in franchise history have posted a 20-20 game as a rookie (Ewing, Reed — 9 times! — and Green). Coincidentally, Robinson just recently met Reed, as he has several great Knicks big men from the past, such as Patrick Ewing and Marcus Camby. He also spent time with Rasheed Wallace. Robinson tied Reed’s rookie high (1965) for rebounds, eclipsed Ewings (1985) by one and missed the franchise record (Johnny Green, 1960) by four rebounds. His nine offensive rebounds tied (Kristaps Porzingis, 2016) for the most by a Knicks rookie.

Al Trautwig and Alan Hahn look back at Mitchell Robinson's 19-point, 21-rebound effort against the Raptors in a virtuoso performance against one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.

Dennis Smith Jr. returned to the lineup after missing six games with a sore back. He came off the bench and played 20 minutes, with seven points, five rebounds and one assist. He was just 2 for 11 from the field. Frank Ntilikina (groin) did not play. He’s missed 24 of the last 26 games with the groin injury, which he re-aggravated on Sunday against the Clippers. Allonzo Trier (strained left calf) missed his fourth straight game.

Kevin Knox (Kentucky) and Daymean Dotson (Houston) have a bet for tonight’s Sweet 16 matchup between their college teams. The loser has to wear the winning team’s jersey to Saturday’s game against the Heat. Kentucky plays Houston at 10 p.m. in Kansas City.

– The Knicks missed their first 12 three-point attempts in the game and finished 6 for 26 from downtown. They are 27th in the NBA in three-point shooting (34%) this season. This would be the second-worst season shooting the three in the last 10 years. The team finished 33.6% from three in the 2011-12 season.

[Coverage Of Knicks-Heat Gets Under Way At 7 PM Saturday On MSG & MSG GO.]

The Garden of Dreams Foundation helps kids facing obstacles in the Tri-State area, including Rangers fan Taylor Ryan who is battling a rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.