Before the game began, Mike Miller explained why he was keeping Mitchell Robinson in a reserve role, insisting that he was playing the best ball of his brief career in that assignment.
His decision seemed to be backed up when Taj Gibson, the 34-year-old starting center, scored the Knicks’ first seven points to help them take an early lead.
Then Robinson came off the bench and began to dunk everything within reach, recording a career-best 23 points along with 10 rebounds in 28 minutes as
the Knicks beat the Bulls, 125-115, on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks, who ended their losing streak at six games, are 18-42. Gibson and Robinson played well in their roles, but it did little to explain why the Knicks continue to put an aging veteran who could be set loose after this season in the starting lineup over one of the players who could be a part of the future.
With the Knicks clinging to the lead down the stretch, Robinson came off the bench with 2:42 remaining to help close out the victory, bringing the crowd to its feet with a reverse dunk of a lob and eliciting MVP chants when he scored in the final minute.
Julius Randle had 22 points and 10 rebounds and RJ Barrett added 19 points. Gibson had 17 points and eight rebounds. The Bulls (20-40) were led by Zach LaVine’s 26 points.
The decision whether to start Robinson or Gibson likely won’t be Miller’s to make much longer. The interim coach is not expected to be kept in place after this season, and it won’t even be the current front office’s choice with Leon Rose about to run the team.
While fans and media may question the move, the one person who does not seem concerned about coming off the bench or starting is Robinson.
“Starting, not starting, it doesn’t really matter to me,” he said. “I’m just here to play, play hard, help my teammates out. If I start the game, cool. If I don’t, oh, well, I’m not going to cry about it. But I’m still going to go out there and play hard.”
Robinson credited Gibson for his improved play, noting that the veteran has been in his ear, telling him to remain more focused at all times. Gibson has willingly taken on a mentoring role.
“As far as his mentality approaching the game, like I told him before the game, take it personal,” Gibson said. “These guys are around your age. You’re going to see them for years. Every game is a battle, every game is a test. Step up to the test. He didn’t let up. He was focused and in tune. That’s what I love about him. He understands the importance of getting better, how serious you have to take this game on a night-to-night basis.”
Robinson realizes that his role can benefit Gibson.
“Taj is old,” Robinson said. “So I’ve got to kind of give my guy a break. Me and [Bobby Portis] have to step our game up so Taj can recover. We’re younger. Way younger. So we’ve really got to look out for him.”
While Gibson has been the starter since the ninth game of the season, he was sidelined Thursday in Philadelphia, and rather than start Robinson, Miller chose to go with Portis. Robinson played well in the first half in a backup role, then started the second half and helped spur a comeback effort from a 20-point deficit before the Knicks fell short.
“[It’s] how well Mitch is playing. It’s that simple,” Miller said when asked why he isn’t switching. “We were looking at it. If there comes a time we need to change it, then we’ll change it, but right now he’s playing the best basketball of his career. We got into the decision the other night, should we go ahead and start him now or keep him in his role. We kept him in his role and then started him in the third quarter and he put together another good game . . . But for the most part, it’s because Mitchell is so effective in the role that he’s playing. We just haven’t been put in a situation where we think it’s time to change it.”
“I’ve been with these guys all year,” Robinson said. “I can play with any of them, doesn’t matter what group they throw me in. I’m still going to do what I need to do on both ends of the floor.”