The reality of life without Mitchell Robinson seemed to take hold in the first quarter Saturday night as the Knicks center sat on the bench in a pink sweater with a matching cast on his right hand. On the floor, Nerlens Noel anchored the interior defense — and the result was 18 points in the paint on 9-for-10 shooting for the Houston Rockets.
But if Robinson’s spot on the bench is the norm for at least the next month, the rest of the problems turned out to be an aberration on this night as the Knicks earned a 121-99 win at Madison Square Garden.
It didn’t hurt that the Rockets, who already were playing small, were without Christian Wood (sprained ankle) and Victor Oladipo (sore right foot).
But the Knicks dominated a shorthanded team for the second straight night, having convincingly beaten Washington on Friday.
Julius Randle led the Knicks’ starters with 22 points and nine rebounds. Immanuel Quickley scored 22 points in 21:19 off the bench and Derrick Rose had 16.
Noel turned in a Robinson-like performance with 10 points, 5-for-6 shooting from the field, six rebounds and two blocks.
"I felt great out there being with the starting lineup," he said. "Got comfortable pretty fast. I think guys played the right way tonight and we’ve been doing that pretty much all season. Games like these where you have to make the extra pass, guys were doing that.
"I really take it upon myself to be a veteran on this team and step up to the task whenever it’s asked of me. I think I’ve done that. I want to take it up a notch through whatever starts I get, through this upcoming period of time. I definitely want to play my game."
When the Knicks signed Noel just before the start of training camp, it gave them a backup who seemed almost too similar to Robinson. Now, with Robinson likely sidelined for at least a month with a fractured bone in his right hand, the Knicks hope Noel can do just that — fill the hole with as close a facsimile of Robinson as he can be.
Robinson started every game for the Knicks this season, but in the preseason, as Robinson acclimated himself to Tom Thibodeau’s system, Noel got the starting assignment. Now Thibodeau believes he can do it in games that count.
"Yeah, I do. In the preseason, we started him," he said. "Our starters and our bench, they’re similar in many ways. The individual strengths are a little bit different with each guy. But in terms of what they bring for the team, you can make a case that you can start all the guys that are on the second unit.
"So just be ready for the opportunity, prepare yourself well. Taj [Gibson] has been a starter, he’s been a bench guy. The one thing I do know about him is his professionalism and his readiness to play. He can sit there and not be playing but he’ll be ready to go, and that adds a lot of value to the team."
While Robinson’s forte has been defense as an athletic and intimidating shot-blocker, Noel actually has averaged more than double Robinson’s blocked shots per 36 minutes (4.0 to 1.9). Noel also has pulled down slightly more rebounds per 36 minutes.
What the Knicks have now is experience with the 26-year-old Noel and the 35-year-old Gibson holding down the middle.
"Nerlens will start. But any time a player like Mitch goes down, you don’t replace him individually," Thibodeau said. "You have to do it collectively. And that’s where we feel good about our team. I think Taj, going in, his experience will help. Nerlens has done a terrific job for us. We want to make sure we maintain the defensive component of our team and I think those two guys can do that."
Thibodeau provided no hint that outside help will be brought in. While the Knicks swung a trade last week to add Rose to the backcourt, he said he thinks the Knicks can get by with Noel, Gibson and the possibility of playing smaller with Randle at center.
But he also said the roster decision will not be his. "That’s the job for Leon [Rose] and [William Wesley]," he said. "We’re always looking at the opportunities that may be out there. But I like the guys we have. If there’s something that can make the team better, we’d always consider it. But I think we have more than enough in that locker room."
"They know I’m ready," Noel said. "Once that task comes, I’ll be ready to go. Mitchell is a big piece on this team. Everything he brings to the table. I hope he has a speedy recovery. Until then, I’ll definitely man the defense, man the paint. Just make sure I’m playing at a high level for this team to win games."