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Knicks Defense Falters Without Robinson, Brunson Steps Up

Following a loss to the Celtics, the Knicks would learn the unfortunate news that starting center and defensive anchor Mitchell Robinson needed ankle surgery and would miss the next 8-10 weeks. Jericho Sims stepped in to start at center, however in the Knicks last game against the Lakers, he exited with an ankle injury and is now questionable for the next game against the Nets.

Robinson has been an integral part to the success of the New York defense and rebounding so far this year. During the 2023-24 season, Robinson has been averaging a career high 10.3 rebounds a game, and his rim protection has been the key to the Knicks defensive strategy. In the five games without him, New York has had a difficult time replacing his defensive presence.

Knicks Defense Struggles

After Robinson went down, the decision to start Sims was made instead of Isaiah Hartenstein, so Hartenstein could maintain his role as the backup center. Sims has always provided an exceptional amount of athleticism, however he does not contain the same defensive skillset.

In the first four games that Sims started in following the injury, he played 18 minutes per game, but he only averaged 3.5 rebounds per game. Hartenstein has played the brunt of the minutes and has been finishing games, even though he has not been the starter. Hartenstein has performed much better than Sims has, however the defense in total has really struggled.

Since Robinson went down, the Knicks have a defensive rating of 125.5 and are giving up 124.8 points per game in those five games. Teams are shooting an astounding 51.4 percent in these games. Before Robinson went down, New York had a defensive rating of 113.8, gave up 112 points per game, and opponents were shooting 45 percent from the field.

The Knicks did give up their least amount of points since Robinson's injury in their last game against the Lakers where Sims went down after three minutes, forcing Hartenstein to play a whopping 39 minutes. Even if Sims is able to play against the Nets, it could make sense to move Hartenstein into the starting lineup considering the success he had against the Lakers.

Although Hartenstein had a great game, it will not be sustainable for him to keep playing 39 minutes. With Sims struggling and potentially having to miss time, and the only other center option being Taj Gibson, it could make sense to start experimenting some smaller lineups. The defense will always be at a disadvantage minus Robinson, so going small to increase spacing offensively could make sense.

Running a lineup featuring Randle at center could certainly be a viable option for a few minutes in a game. Pairing him with Josh Hart should keep the rebounding at a solid enough level as Hart rebounds incredibly well for his height.

Offensively, this lineup holds a lot of potential as it will open up more space for Brunson and Randle than they are usually accustomed to with inside centers like Robinson and Hartenstein. Even it is just a few minutes a game, the Knicks could catch their opponents off guard with a smaller and quicker lineup that has the potential to put fast points.

Brunson Steps Up

Since Robinson went down, Jalen Brunson has stepped up in a huge way offensively. He is averaging 29 points, 7 rebounds, and 5.2 assists on an incredibly efficient 51.1 percent from the field and 54.8 percent from three. But there is one game that stands out over this past stretch.

Against the Suns, Brunson had the best game of his career. He put up 50 points, nine assists, six rebounds and five steals on an incredible 17-23 from the field and 9-9 from three. It was arguably the most impressive 50 point game ever as it only took him 23 shots to get there, and he did not miss a single three in route to his career-high 50 points. Brunson has picked up right where he left off last season, and performances like these show how truly special of a player the Knicks have in him.

Julius Randle has also played incredibly well of late. He has averaged 27.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists on a very efficient 58.6 percent from the field. Randle really struggled to start the year, but he has been on a tear since then and he and Brunson have been carrying the Knicks as of late.

The star duo will have to continue this level of play offensively without Robinson in the lineup. The Knicks have managed to go 3-2 so far without him due to some great offensive play from the two. If the defense can make some slight improvements, and the duo of Brunson and Randle continue their elite play, there is no reason why the Knicks cannot stay afloat during this stretch without their starting center.