By DYLAN LUTEY
After a 2-4 start to the season, the New York Knicks have started to find their groove. The Knicks (5-4) have won three in a row with the latest victory coming in the form of 129-107 rout of the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
It was a very balanced effort in the scoring department. RJ Barrett led the way with 24 points, Julius Randle scored 23, and Jalen Brunson added 20. Immanuel Quickley scored 17 points and added 9 assists, showing why he is currently tied with Tim Hardaway Jr with the best odds (+700) to win the Sixth man of the year, according to DraftKings.
The center tandem of Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein once again made their presence felt, combining for 16 points and 15 rebounds. They also held the Hornets’ center Mark Williams, who was coming off 21 points and 24 rebounds against the Wizards, to just 10 points and 4 rebounds.
The ‘Big 3’ of Barrett, Randle, and Brunson will always get a lot of the recognition, deservedly so, because of their scoring and ability to make plays on the offensive end.
However, it is the unlikely duo of Robinson and Hartenstein who have arguably been the most consistent players for a Knicks team which has dealt with ups and downs early on in the season.
“They’ve been fantastic the whole year,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said last week. “They’re great teammates and they’re selfless. It makes us go.”
Everything about their journey and play style has made their success very special.
Both players were drafted in the second round, Robinson with the 36th pick in the 2018 draft by the Knicks and Hartenstein with the 43rd pick in the 2017 draft by the Rockets.
Their style of play does not align with the modern style of play that has become expected from big men: handle the ball and shoot it from deep.
Yet, they have made it work. The duo has embraced their role as more traditional centers who play down low, play hard nosed defense, and crash the glass.
Do the Knicks have the best center duo in the NBA? Got to respect what Mitchell Robinson & Isaiah Hartenstein are bringing to the orange and blue night in and night out! pic.twitter.com/iUuoDHpdck— Knicks Fan TV (@KnicksFanTv) November 8, 2023
Robinson, especially, has taken his game to the next level and has been historically good on the offensive glass. Through nine games, he is averaging 6.1 offensive rebounds per game which is good for first in the NBA; the next closest is the Detroit Pistons’ Ausar Thompson with 4.2 per game. His 55 offensive rebounds is the 8th most in NBA history through the first 9 games of a season. The 7-0 center combines the strength he has added since entering the league with his height and athleticism to pulverize opponents on the interior. Even when he isn’t grabbing When Robinson comes off the floor, Hartenstein fills right in, averaging over 2 offensive rebounds a game himself.
Their offensive rebound prowess has led to 16.8 second chance points per game which is 5th in the NBA. This has been especially big for the Knicks because of some early shooting struggles. The team currently shoots 42.9% from the field which is last in the NBA, but because of the second-chance opportunities the center tandem has fought for, they still find themselves in a pretty comfortable spot to start the season, sitting at 5-4.
The pair has also anchored the Knicks defense which currently ranks a close second in the NBA, allowing just 103.2 points per game. The Minnesota Timberwolves currently lead, allowing 103.1 points per game.
Despite averaging just under a block per game so far which is a career low, Robinson is better than ever on the defensive end and a lot of that has to do with his discipline. At the beginning of his career he had a propensity to foul a lot, averaging over 3 fouls per game in his rookie year. Last season he averaged just 2.7 fouls per game and so far he is averaging only 2.2 fouls this season. He has learned when to go for the block and when to simply wall up and use his 7-4 wingspan to his advantage. Hartenstein brings a lot of energy on the defensive end, oftentimes igniting the crowd with a big block or by diving on the floor for a loose ball.
Although it took a while, the pair finally earned some well-earned national recognition last week in a 126-105 win against the Spurs where they shut down Victor Wembanyama. Many people tuned in to see this year’s number 1 overall pick in his Madison Square Garden debut, expecting the 7-4 forward to put on a show, but instead got a defensive masterclass from the pair of centers. They played a big role in holding Wembanyama to just 4-14 from the field.
Before the matchup, Robinson was asked about playing against someone who is bigger than him and added to the intrigue of the game.
“You mean taller? Cause he’s not bigger than me,” the 7-0 center corrected the reporter which got a laugh out of everyone. “He’s on the perimeter a lot, so I have to move my feet and get ready for that. I’m not really worried about the tallness.”
Robinson backed up his talk. Wembanyama went 0-6 when guarded by him. Hartenstein also tied a season-high with 13 points, two of them came off a shot which the big man flipped right over the french big man. Head coach Tom Thibodeau talked highly of them after their impressive performance on national tv.
“Those guys have been fantastic all year, they are great teammates and they are selfless, it makes us go,” said Thibodeau after the game of his center duo’s performance.
It may have taken a little while for the two to get national attention, but their efforts certainly haven’t gone unnoticed within the organization. Robinson and Hartenstein have both received praise from coaches and teammates during their tremendous first couple of weeks.
On October 31st in a 109-91 victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thibodeau had great things to say about both his big men.
“Mitch of course with our starters is the anchor; he puts a lot of pressure on people as well,” said Thibodeau.
He was also asked about Hartenstein’s play.
“He’s really playing good basketball for us,” said Thibodeau. “He has been physical. He’s strong inside [and] he’s finishing a lot better. He’s put a lot of extra work into that [and] he’s a very gifted passer.”
Then, a week later after a much needed 111-97 win against the Clippers on November 6th, Robinson received high praise for his best performance of the young season. He dominated the glass on his way to a 13-point, 15-rebound performance where he finished with 9 offensive rebounds.
“Mitch is a true professional,” new addition Donte DiVincenzo said when asked about the big man’s impact. “He just comes and does his job. No plays run for him, nothing. He has a knack for finding offensive rebounds and tipping it to himself. I respect the hell outta of him just coming in and doing his job every single day.”
His head coach also expressed his appreciation for his big man.
“What can you say about Mitch, he’s been unbelievable,” said Thibodeau.
In addition to their success on the court, the duo also share a strong bond off the court dating back to last season. Most recently, Hartenstein was seen wearing a shirt with Robinson’s face on it. They have both endeared themselves to fans with their play on the court and relationship off of it. Hartenstein has quickly become a fan favorite after being signed to a 2-year deal last season and fans have always loved the home grown Robinson.
Robinson shares similar feelings towards the fans and the organization.
“He wants to run through a wall for this team because of how much loyalty they’ve shown him,” reported Rebecca Haarlow during the Knicks-Hornets broadcast.
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