Mitchell Robinson Credit: Bill Moore photo

Defense prevails.

This should be the Knicks’ mantra for the next 33 regular season games if they expect to compete for a top-six seed in the Eastern Conference and avoid being a Play-In Tournament team. Furthermore, sound defense is what will be the Knicks’ most valuable asset to prevent them from descending  in the standings and potentially fighting for a lower Play-In seed.

Tuesday night’s 105-103 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Madison Square Garden is evidence of this premise. The Knicks harassed the Cavaliers’ dynamic All-Star backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland into a combined 15-41 shooting, and made two game-defining defensive stops against Mitchell in the final 88 seconds to secure a critically important win. 

RJ Barrett blocked a Mitchell drive to the basket at 1:18 with the Knicks up 103-100, then center Isaiah Hartenstein turned back Mitchell’s attempt at the basket with 47.1 seconds left and the score unchanged. The Cavaliers guard had one more chance with the Knicks up 105-103 but was smothered on a foray into the paint with 4.1 seconds to go—and the Knicks held on. The win broke the Knicks’ four-game losing streak going into their game tonight on the road versus the Boston Celtics, the team with the best record in the NBA at 35-14 as of yesterday (Wednesday). 

Julius Randle provided much of the Knicks offense, scoring 36 points on a highly efficient 11-21 shooting night, including a sizzling 8-12 on 3-pointers. Randle also added 13 rebounds.  

“Yeah, we dropped a few that we felt we should have won,” he said. “For us to respond like that

with a tough matchup with Cleveland—it’s great.”

During their losing stretch, the Knicks allowed an alarming 126 points per game. It caused head coach Tom Thibodeau, a defensive-minded practitioner, rightful concern. The nosedive from a high defensive rating before the slide could be traced directly to Mitchell Robinson fracturing his thumb on January 13 at the Garden in a 112-108 win against the Washington Wizards. Robinson had surgery last week to repair the fractured right thumb and is expected to be out at least three more weeks. He is averaging 1.8 blocks—fifth in the NBA, 8.9 rebounds per game and 4.3 offensive rebounds, which is second in the league behind the Memphis Grizzlies Steven Adams. 

The Knicks are not built to win consistently by generating or exceeding offense. Randle leads them in scoring at 24.8 points per game, 18th in the league. As a team, they are near the middle of the league, ranking 14th at 114. 1 per game. They were third in opponents’ field goal percentage allowed when the league’s schedule tipped off last night at a sturdy 45.2%. Hartenstein noted the Knicks’ defense after the victory over Cleveland. 

“I think it was a team effort,” said the first-yeak Knick. “I think we all knew during the four-game losing streak (that) even when Mitch [Mitchell Robinson] was there, we weren’t playing good team defense, and it was not on the bigs or on the guards, it was on all of us. This game was a step in the right direction, but we just have to keep getting better.”

The Knicks will play the Nets on Saturday in Brooklyn, then host the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James, who is closing in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA points record, next Tuesday, followed by the Miami Heat at MSG on next Thursday.

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