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Newly-benched Mitchell Robinson helps propel Knicks past Spurs

Knicks' Mitchell Robinson (23) shoots against San Antonio

Knicks' Mitchell Robinson (23) shoots against San Antonio Spurs' Josh Primo (11) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in San Antonio.  Credit: AP/Darren Abate

SAN ANTONIO — It was a week ago that Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau made a drastic lineup change, sending Kemba Walker to the bench. With the move not bringing the desired result, instead bringing on a three-game losing streak and an embarrassing performance Saturday at home against Denver, Thibodeau reached for another change.

This time, pulling Mitchell Robinson from the starting lineup and inserting Nerlens Noel, it may not have provided the planned response as Noel did little in the start. But it seemed to send a jolt of electricity into Robinson off the bench and paired with the hot shooting night from RJ Barrett the Knicks had all that they needed to snap the losing streak.

The Knicks rode 32 points from Barrett and an 11-point, 14-rebound effort from Robinson to a 121-109 win over the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center.

Noel’s addition to the starting lineup didn’t pay off immediately, but the return to form of Barrett did. After enduring a brutal stretch of shooting — just 32.9% overall and 22.4% from beyond the arc over the last 13 games — Barrett was the subject of a did he or didn’t he criticize him in recent comments from Thibodeau.

After the one-sided loss to Denver Saturday Thibodeau pointed out that the way that Barrett succeeded last season was getting in the gym and putting in the work and that it had to happen again. He clarified his comments Monday at practice, explaining that he meant that because Barrett had been battling an illness over the last week he couldn’t do the work he needed.

"I was really down for a couple weeks," Barrett said, noting that when the Knicks landed in San Antonio Monday night after practicing at home he and a few teammates headed to the arena to work more. "Feeling better now, getting back in the gym it was great. To have a game like today it felt really good. Hopefully, it can carry to tomorrow."

Whatever the explanation, Barrett responded by hitting 7-of-12 from the floor in the first half, including 4-of-4 from three-point range, in the first half to lead the Knicks with 19 points as they built a 62-56 lead. Barrett then hit another three to start the second half and added one in front of the Spurs bench with 2:45 to play, putting the Knicks up by 14 and sending the fans rushing for the exits. He finished 11-for-20 overall and 7-for-8 from beyond the arc.

The jump-start may not have been attributable to the lineup change, but for Robinson it was. Asked after the morning shootaround how he would fit with the second unit, Robinson said, "We’ll find that out. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll continue to work." And he did, suddenly showing the sort of bounce to his game that had been missing. He did take a hard fall, getting undercut in the third quarter by Drew Eubanks and landing hard on his back. He hobbled into the postgame news conference and said, "That ground ain’t never lost."

Robinson has not been the same player he was before suffering a broken hand and foot last season, unable to work out on the court the offseason as he worked his way through rehabilitation on the foot injury. In that time while he focused on strength training, the only thing he could do, he put on weight and got stronger, but lost his conditioning and some of the athleticism that made him such a special defensive force.

For Robinson, it seems as if time is what he needs. He put on nearly 50 pounds since last season and said he topped out at 280 at the start of training camp. But with a return to the court and doing extra conditioning work he has dropped to 265.

"I’m trying to build that flame back," Robinson said. "Before I broke my hand I was in pretty good shape. That was one fo the best games I had, kind of need to get back to playing like that, with an edge."

After being dominated by Nikola Jokic in Saturday’s onesided loss to Denver he said that he saw the problem, "Yeah, just be in better shape." Still, he is not himself and that has led to frustration.

"I mean yeah it is," Robinson said. "I wish I could jump right back into it and be who I was before the injury. It’s cool. I’m going to work and be back to myself."

Thibodeau can’t be blamed for trying to mimic his success from last season. Noel was one piece and by inserting Alec Burks at point guard in place of Walker he got the size defensively that Elfrid Payton provided while giving the Knicks a much better offensive player.

"Just to get a change," Thibodeau said after the game of the lineup change. "Both of those guys are invaluable to us, and we learned that last year. Mitch was playing great right prior to his injury, Nerlens stepped in and he killed it the whole second half of the season. So we feel really strongly about both guys. So we just wanted a different look. Those guys are interchangeable. Just go as hard as you can as long as you can. And then the next guy comes in and does the same thing."

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