Mitchell Robinson’s absence lets Knicks become more flexible

SAN FRANCISCO — If anything positive has come out of Mitchell Robinson’s sprained right knee, it is the future roster flexibility that has been created for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau.

Twice since Robinson went down, the Knicks have rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit after Thibodeau has gone to a small lineup, with Julius Randle and Obi Toppin up front. It happened against the 76ers on Nov. 4, and it was the impetus Wednesday night for their rally from 10 points down in the final 7:20 of regulation to beat the Nuggets.

“We were just looking [for a spark]. We thought they were sort of small, so we thought that we could play that, and I thought it would give us energy, and it did,” Thibodeau said. “Just having the ability to do some more switching, that sort of thing, and use our athleticism, which we were trying to get. They were switching, so what we wanted to do was get more cutting onto the floor.”

Obi Toppin, right, celebrates with Julius Randle.
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The Knicks didn’t have to deal with a superstar center in either of those wins. The 76ers were without Joel Embiid and the Nuggets didn’t have the services of Nikola Jokic. That obviously goes into it. And the Randle and Toppin pairing hasn’t worked every time. The Knicks struggled in losses to the Celtics and Thunder.

But when Randle and Toppin have shared the court, which has happened in 51 total minutes across seven games, the Knicks have outscored the opposition by 1.9 points per 100 possessions. The Knicks’ defensive rating in those instances is 109.0 per 100 possessions, which is better than their overall defensive rating of 112.9. The lack of a rim protector, which Thibodeau has said in the past is why he preferred to stay away from that lineup, hasn’t negatively impacted them.

“I think our aggressiveness turns up a little bit [when we’re both in there],” Randle said.

Robinson, who has missed seven straight games, is listed as doubtful to face the Warriors on Friday night.

The Knicks’ best defender, in terms of defensive rating, is Immanuel Quickley. With him on the floor, they have a rating of 101.8, and Quickley played lock-down defense on Jamal Murray in the final seconds of the Knicks’ win over the Nuggets. He had one of his best all-around games of the season in the win, notching six points, six assists, five rebounds and just one turnover in 28 minutes.

Quickley is also the Knicks’ leader in net rating, and they have outscored their opponents by 6.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. He has committed just three turnovers in his last seven games, while racking up 20 assists, and has appropriately seen a slight uptick in minutes.

RJ Barrett is in the throes of a shooting slump. Over the last three games, he is 11-for-46 from the field, and has missed his last 17 attempts from 3-point range. Barrett has been feeling ill of late, but has played through it.