Mitchell Robinson-Nerlens Noel duo gave Knicks ‘elite’ defense


Tom Thibodeau elected to start free-agent signee Nerlens Noel over Mitchell Robinson at center for the Knicks’ preseason opener. It wasn’t a surprise considering some of the sentiments Thibodeau expressed during training camp about Robinson having “a long way to go.’’

On social media Friday morning, Robinson issued a mysterious message about showing “loyalty.’’ Whether it was about not starting is unclear.

But what was very clear was a Noel-Robinson tag team at center really works on the defensive end. Noel and Robinson combined for four blocks and 15 rebounds in the Knicks’ 90-84 victory over the Pistons on Friday night at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Noel scored 10 points, while Robinson strictly made his presence felt on defense, notching four steals. This may or may not be how it plays out every game, Thibodeau said, but he liked the center rotation for one night in Motown.

“The rim protection is elite,’’ Thibodeau said. “And then the finishing at the basket. I’ve been very pleased with Mitchell as well. When you have two bigs that are like that, it’s a big bonus. And they’re very similar. I’m not sure who I’m going to start, but I like both of those guys, and I’m going to need them to play well to play well as a team.’’

A tag team, that is.

The Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson grabs a rebound.
Getty Images

The starting lineup showed one big surprise — new signee Alec Burks getting the nod at shooting guard with RJ Barrett shifting to the 3. Burks, who signed a one-year, $6 million deal, revived his career last season with the Warriors and 76ers. Burks came on in the second half and finished 3-of-7 for seven points. Thibodeau said nothing is decided, as the Knicks have four preseason games before the Dec. 23 opener at Indiana.

Toppin admitted before the game he was thrilled to go against Blake Griffin as he has heard comparisons. On one play, Griffin pump-faked him at the 3-point line and made Toppin look bad.

“It was my first time playing against Blake, so I was learning as the game went on,’’ Toppin said. “He has a slow, slow pump fake. I’m not going to lie, I jumped.”