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Mitchell Robinson’s first battle with the Pacers this season had him glued him to the bench early because of foul trouble.
In Saturday night’s rematch, Robinson played the kind of game that had coach Tom Thibodeau gushing about him afterward.
The Knicks’ bouncy big man was a menace around the rim in the 106-102 win in Indiana, racking up 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting to go with nine rebounds and two blocks. The second block helped secure the win, denying a Malcolm Brogdon 3-point attempt with 40 seconds left and leading to an Austin Rivers fast-break bucket for a 102-96 lead.
“Every day, [Robinson] is growing and growing and growing,” Thibodeau said before the Knicks traveled to Atlanta to close out a four-game road trip against the Hawks on Monday night. “The way he’s working and studying and preparing for the games, you could see his confidence grow. He’s making multiple-effort plays. He’s a hard guy to score over and he’s really the anchor of the defense back there. Offensively, there’s a lot of room for him to grow. He’s putting a lot of time in.
“You guys haven’t seen it yet, but it’s coming.”
It was a stark contrast from Robinson’s first game against the Pacers in the season opener, when he recorded three early fouls, all drawn by Domantas Sabonis, and finished with three points, six rebounds and three blocks.
Saturday night, Robinson made his money cleaning up loose change above the rim. Four of his six first-half field goals were tip-ins, mixing in a dunk and an alley-oop before adding a pair of alley-oops in the second half for his highest-scoring game of the season.
But it was Robinson’s defense that was the difference down the stretch, with his key block on Brogdon and helping Julius Randle keep Sabonis in check.
“Mitch was huge for us,” veteran guard Austin Rivers said. “So was Julius’ play. But Mitch and/or Nerls’ [Nerlens Noel] activity today on the defensive end, in my eyes, won us the game. You get Mitch and Nerls playing that active every game, we’re gonna be pretty solid on the defensive end.
“We weren’t perfect. We can still improve in a lot of areas, but I thought our communication on the defensive end all game was really solid. We held one of the better teams in the NBA to 102 points.”
A critical part of that was controlling the game inside. The Pacers entered the game as one of the league’s best teams inside, averaging 61.2 points per game in the paint, including a 68-52 advantage over the Knicks in their first meeting on Dec. 23. But the Knicks dominated them in that area Saturday, outscoring the Pacers in the paint 56-26 and out-rebounding them 60-37.
“That’s the difference in the game,” Brogdon told reporters. “Their ability to rebound the ball and be physical inside was huge.”
Sabonis crushed the Knicks in the season opener — both by putting Robinson in early foul trouble and finishing with 32 points and 13 rebounds. Saturday, the All-Star recorded a quiet double-double of 13 points and 13 rebounds.
Perhaps most importantly, Robinson didn’t pick up his first foul until the 7:44-mark in the second quarter — after already having three fouls by that point in the season opener. It kept him on the court to pour in points in the first half and then come up with big stops late.
“Ju and Mitch had some huge plays defensively at the end of the game,” RJ Barrett said. “Those were some big stops for us. We just played hard.”