Despite a limited capacity for fans, Madison Square Garden still has managed to sound like nearly a full house on most days when the Knicks are playing. That’s particularly true of late, as they have put together a nine-game winning streak that has put them in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
The noise predictably has been chants of "M-V-P" for Julius Randle, screams for three-point field goals from the Knicks’ assortment of improving shooters and Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium-like cries when Obi Toppin does just about anything. But one thing that also has begun to attract the sound of the crowd is Nerlens Noel bringing back a semblance of the cries for "Dee-fense" that once permeated the Garden.
Noel ranks third in the NBA in total blocked shots and fourth in blocks per game this season. He is averaging 2.2 per game — 2.3 since Mitchell Robinson went out and Noel became the default starting center. But beyond the numbers, it has been the timing and importance of late. The number has risen to three blocks per game during the nine-game winning streak.
"He’s got great anticipation," coach Tom Thibodeau said on Sunday. "You could always see that. He can see things early. He’s got great timing. And he’ll make you miss. He’s going to make you miss around the rim. And those blocked shots, they unite and inspire the team. They’re big-time hustle plays, put you in the open floor. Oftentimes, you get the block and you get a layup down the other end, or an open three. So that gets us ignited, but he’s the anchor for the defense. And he’s starring in his role."
Thibodeau preaches knowing your role, and Noel has flourished in his. He is contributing to a winning team right now and likely increasing his value as a free agent at season’s end. If his blocked shots — particularly his penchant for blocking dunk attempts, as he did to the Raptors’ Pascal Siakam on Saturday — have begun to garner attention from the fans, they also come with a bit of interest from his teammates.
Derrick Rose has been impressed with how the 6-11, 220-pound Noel does it with a physique that isn’t exactly imposing.
"Oh, he’s great," Rose said. "I’ve never really paid attention to him like that because he played most of this time like in the West and I was in the East, but seeing him up close is totally different. He’s like a freak of nature for how skinny he is, [but] he has a presence down there. And you look at him, like, man, no way that skinny guy’s out there doing all that.
"And for someone jumping the way he does after having the ACL tear just shows that he’s committed to his body. I see him every day, being a pro, taking care of his body, stretching, making sure that you do all the little things before you go on the court and he’s getting the results, where he’s blocking people’s shots very clean and very efficient. So if anything, he’s like the anchor on the defensive end.
"And what I mean by pro, he plays the whole game. He doesn’t get touches [offensively]. You get touches here and there, but most guys, they’d probably let it go to their head and want to score the ball. It’s KYP — know your personnel — he knows why he’s here and knows his ability, and we appreciate it him for that."
Noel has been banged up at times, including the stitches he currently has inside his lacerated lip from a blow he received from Atlanta’s Clint Capela on Wednesday. Noel shrugged off the notion that his thin frame isn’t enough for him to compete with the bigger centers — such as 6-11, 250-pound Deandre Ayton, who arrives with the Phoenix Suns on Monday.
"Just experience, intelligence, IQ of the game, understanding spots, angles, understanding how to be a basketball player simply," Noel said. "It’s not football, so I think I’m going to be all right. It’s just playing. I’ve had the same body type, just more lean and slender, my whole life and I’ve been going against bigger guys like [Andre] Drummond and Steven Adams since high school. So it’s nothing I haven’t been through or haven’t done or anybody I haven’t guarded. I figure things out and I use my strengths to my advantage with quickness, IQ of the game, angles and being able to play through certain things. As simple as that. Just play basketball. It’s not football."
The 2020-21 version of the Knicks will try to become the eighth team in franchise history to achieve a double-digit win streak. The first seven:
10 wins: 1968-69
11 wins: 1968-69,1972-73
12 wins: 1992-93/93-94* (spanned two seasons)
13 wins: 2012-13
15 wins: 1993-94
18 wins: 1969-70