Hours after Mitchell Robinson underwent his second surgical procedure in a six-week span, the Knicks had a taste of life without him. But they didn’t need a replacement for the 7-foot center as much as they needed an answer for Miami’s Jimmy Butler.
Butler, one of Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau’s favorites from his days in Chicago and Minnesota, took over a defensive battle in the third quarter, scoring 15 of his 27 points to lead the Heat to a 98-88 win over the Knicks on Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks learned that they likely will be without Robinson for at least the remainder of the regular season after he had what they called successful surgery Monday to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. The injury is similar to one that sidelined Kevin Durant when he was with Oklahoma City and for years derailed the career of Brook Lopez. It’s not uncommon for big men in the NBA, but it’s a difficult area to heal for the 240-pound Robinson.
The Heat brought a six-game losing streak into the night and the Knicks were searching for their first four-game winning streak of the season and a chance to solidify a hold on fourth place in the Eastern Conference by going three games over .500 for the first time this season. Instead, Miami (23-24) pulled within a game of the Knicks (24-23) in the crowded field of playoff contenders bunched from the fourth spot to the 10th.
"It’s like a playoff game, playoff environment," RJ Barrett said. "That’s what we’re looking forward to, that’s somewhere we want to get to. It’s good to have games like these to kind of prepare."
Said Thibodeau, "The first half I thought you had to fight and scratch and claw for everything. And we’re up seven. And we thought the first five minutes of the third were going to be critical, and they were. But our defense and our offense — when you get outscored 39-21, that’s a problem. We knew they would come in with that type of intensity and we’ve got to play the same way and we didn’t."
The game had started off raising echoes of the Knicks-Heat rivalry from the 1990s, with the teams totaling 36 points in the first quarter. Even as the Knicks built a 43-36 halftime lead, their entire starting lineup didn’t have a single assist.
Butler took over in the third quarter as the Heat outscored the Knicks 39-21. Miami led by as many as 15 points in the fourth quarter.
Julius Randle, back after missing a game with a thigh contusion, led the Knicks with 22 points. Derrick Rose scored 16 and Immanuel Quickley had 12.
Bam Adebayo had 20 points and 17 rebounds for the Heat. Tyler Herro added 18 points.
The game presented an immediate problem for the Knicks, but the long-range one is figuring out how to move forward without Robinson. The trade deadline has passed and the buyout market has emptied out with LaMarcus Aldridge heading to the Nets, Gorgui Dieng to the Spurs and Andre Drummond to the Lakers. So as the Knicks head through the final 25 games of the season, for now the team is trusting Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson to handle the duties in the middle.
"We’re always looking at who’s available," Thibodeau said. "We’ve been through this when Mitchell was out earlier and so we feel good about what Nerlens does as a starter and also what Taj does. So we’d probably need a little insurance there. But we have guys. Julius can play there. So we do have versatility there as well."
"I feel like we have it covered, but that’s not my department," said Noel, who had eight points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and two steals. "That’s the front office’s choice. We’re definitely comfortable with what we have. If Coach, management wants to add another piece, that’s all up to them. I definitely feel we’re comfortable with what we have."