New York Knicks: Solutions for their center problem(s)

Nerlens Noel, New York Knicks (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Nerlens Noel, New York Knicks (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /
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Taj Gibson, NY Knicks (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images) /

Knicks: The “right now” solution at center

Thibs made the first and most obvious move by starting Taj Gibson. While it didn’t work in Game 3, it is the sensible decision. Gibson is skilled enough that the Hawks have to respect him, at least more than they respect Noel.

Taj has better hands, finishes better, and can score post touches or hit a jump shot when called upon. This, theoretically, should give Randle and Barrett more space to get going. It worked in the third quarter of Game 2, and perhaps with another full game under their belts, they can recapture that magic more consistently in Game 4.

(The Knicks were 7.3 points better with Gibson on the court this year vs. off.  And despite a subpar Game 3 performance, they are +26.3 with him on vs. off in the playoffs.)

If they can’t recapture it – if Game 4 starts slowly and Game 2 proves to be an aberration – then Thibs MUST make a difficult decision. He must forget about sticking with what got them here. He. Must. Go. Small.

That means Toppin and Randle spending time at the 5, either together or separately.

The problem is, they didn’t do it during the regular season. Like, at all. If the Hawks end up advancing, we may look back at Thibs’ refusal to experiment more with small-ball during the regular season as the reason we fell short in a winnable series. Because this matchup – the matchup everyone wanted – demands it.

Let’s, for a second, imagine a Randle-Toppin frontcourt pairing. Randle catches and faces, looks for a driving lane, and…finds one! Because Obi’s spotted up at the three-point line, where he’s made 10 of his last 23 attempts. Yes, it’s a small sample, but Toppin’s improvement and effectiveness of late can’t be dismissed, and his excellence as a cutter means he won’t be reduced to a stand-still shooter.

Or, when ATL goes extra small with Collins at the center, you can play either Toppin or Randle as the lone big surrounded by guards, with Barrett on Gallinari. This is the Knicks’ best chance to keep up with the Hawks offensively, to eliminate the 9-0 and 13-0 runs that buried them in the second quarter of Game 3. Play 5-out, maximize spacing and hope that it’s enough to get Randle and/or Barrett back on track.

(If Thibs is uncharacteristically against burdening Randle and Rose with even more minutes, he would need to add someone to the rotation in this scenario. That someone should be Frank Ntilikina. Say what you want about him, hate him for how Game 1 ended, whatever – he’s a good defender who shot 48% from three this year, willingly moves the ball, and matches up perfectly when the Hawks go extra-small.)

I’m not saying to never use Noel again this year. Use him situationally, like we’ve used Frank and Knox and others throughout the year. Let him eat minutes against Okongwu. But playing him 20+ minutes is hurting the team, so Thibs needs to switch things up if there’s any hope of pulling this out.