Almost as soon as he collided with Julius Randle — what seemed to be minor contact — Mitchell Robinson began shaking his right hand. He had sneaked over along the baseline to help out as Rui Hachimura moved toward the rim late in the first half, and when Robinson jumped, his hand apparently collided with Randle’s elbow.
Randle didn’t even seem to notice that there had been an impact. Robinson stayed in the game until the half came to an end. He then retreated to an X-ray room at Capital One Arena, and it was disclosed that he had suffered a fracture to the fourth metacarpal of his hand.
If the situation originally seemed innocuous — the only sign that something was wrong was Robinson’s repeated efforts to shake it off — the effect now is not so innocuous, and it may be harder for the Knicks to shake it off.
Robinson was evaluated by the Knicks’ medical staff Saturday, and it was recommended that he have surgery. There will be a further update early next week.
The injury comes at a time when the Knicks clearly have shown that this is not like recent seasons, when the franchise would be running out the string toward assembling as many Ping-Pong balls in the draft lottery as possible.
Whether it’s the way they have played under coach Tom Thibodeau or the trade for Derrick Rose that provides the signal that you want to follow, the Knicks clearly are chasing a playoff berth this season.
So how does the loss of Robinson affect that dynamic?
First, you can be sure that it won’t change Thibodeau’s plans to play to win. Without Robinson in the second half Friday, Thibodeau didn’t let up until the final minutes. He put Randle back in the game up 20 midway through the fourth quarter, and the last starter wasn’t pulled until 2:45 remained in the Knicks’ 109-91 win.
Then Thibodeau was predictably on message immediately after the game.
"As you know, the games keep coming," he said. "I thought Nerlens [Noel] stepped in, did a great job in the second half. And that’s the great value in having a guy like Taj [Gibson] on the roster. So next man up. We got to circle the wagon and got to be ready to go."
Looking at the on-court, off-court numbers, the Knicks don’t lose a lot when Robinson isn’t on the floor. Both the offensive rating and defensive rating are slightly better with him off the court. But that doesn’t account for the threat he presents on the defensive end, even when he isn’t blocking a shot. He has avoided the constant foul trouble that plagued him in his first two seasons; under Thibodeau, he has become a more stable, less highlight-driven defensive force.
The Knicks have a backup in Noel who mimics much of what Robinson does, and if they opt to go another way, they can use Gibson, who is a more efficient offensive player, or even play small with Randle at center. Saturday night’s first test against the Houston Rockets had them playing against a team already playing small.
"It’s very tough. It definitely will be tough without him," Randle said. "I don’t know how long he’ll be out, but he brings so much to the game, especially on the defensive end, with his rebounding, and it’s surely tough. But the NBA is a long season, and [Noel] has been staying ready, Taj has been staying ready, guys have been staying ready, so it’s next man up and we just want to keep moving."
Robinson may be almost invisible on the offensive end — his game is limited to finishing off lobs near the rim — but he has been a reliably steady part of the team this season. He has started every game and is averaging nearly 30 minutes per game.
"We’ll have some flexibility," Thibodeau said. "We can play smaller. I like what Taj gives us. Obviously, the great value and the things that Mitch brought to the team was the defensive component, and I feel that Nerlens does many of those things extremely well. And of course Taj, that’s been his strength throughout his career.
"So I don’t want to lose that piece of it. But I like the way Obi [Toppin] is coming on. He’s giving us good minutes. So we have that option. We can downsize and can play Kevin [Knox] at the four. Play Julius at the five. There’s a number of things we can do. I like the versatility of our team. But any time we lose a player of Mitch’s caliber, we have to make sure we’re playing hard. You don’t replace a guy like that individually. We have to do it collectively and everybody has to step up."
The Knicks were 12-15 after Friday’s victory, sitting in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Will they be able to hold that place for the next four to six weeks in Robinson’s absence?
If they can or can’t, what will that say about Robinson’s place in the future of the organization?
These are questions that, like a fracture, won’t be easy to shake off.