For the first time in a decade, the New York Knicks have advanced to the second round of the playoffs thanks to a drubbing of the favored Cleveland Cavaliers. The result itself should not come as a substantial surprise, as the Knicks were 20-10 since the start of February and maintained the best point differential in the league since the trade deadline.
And yet, the way they took it to the Cavs was staggering, especially because Julius Randle was hobbled much of the series with an ankle injury. Rather than veering into a new direction to try and compensate for Randle being off his game, the Knicks did what they usually do, only better.
New York owned the offensive boards in the regular season, finishing second in the Association in offensive rebound rate by corralling 28.3 percent of their own. That number ratcheted up to 34.9 percent against the Cavaliers, a mark so ridiculously high that we’ve only seen one team (the 2002-03 Golden State Warriors) surpass it over the course of a season since the turn of the century, per Basketball Reference.
Mitchell Robinson dominated the offensive glass all year. His offensive rebounding percentage of 18.4 percent was a career-best mark, led the league, and will go down as the 11th highest single-season mark in NBA/ABA history. In keeping up with the team-wide trend, Robinson grabbed 23.1 percent of all possible offensive rebounds while he was on the court against the Cavs.
(To put into perspective how authoritative he was on the glass, Dennis Rodman, considered the greatest rebounder the modern NBA has seen, set the single-season record with a 20.83 percent mark during the 1994-95 season.)
Robinson’s presence extended past his own dominance, opening the doors for others to crash the glass due to the amount of attention Cleveland needed to pay to him under the rim. Per Cleaning the Glass, New York rebounded 40.9 percent of its own misses with Robinson on the floor. That’s right: two out of every five misses over the course of the entire series by a Knicks ended up in the hands of another Knicks player when Robinson was out there, which is absurd.
The Knicks were phenomenal defensively in the series, but it’s worth noting that Cleveland defended New York fairly well, too. New York’s 111.1 offensive rating in the series would have ranked in the 28th in the NBA this season, sandwiched between the Rockets and Pistons. The second-chance points were by and large the primary differentiator in the Knicks’ runs throughout the series — they outscored the Cavs, 91-55, in second-chance points across all five games.
This series is arguably Robinson’s shining moment as a pro, one in which he was the most impactful player on the court for large stretches. He drastically outperformed one of the best frontcourts in basketball, as he reeled in 29 offensive rebounds compared to the combined 30 from Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Making this even more impressive is that, like Mobley, this was Robinson’s first time in the postseason, as he missed the 2020-21 first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks with a foot fracture.
This season has unequivocally been Robinson’s best in the NBA, and this series embodied what makes him such an impactful player. To be a great rebounder, you obviously have to grab the ball, but it’s the work before he touches the ball that makes Robinson a supreme paint presence.
The Cavs put two defenders on the ball routinely in the series, and this possession reflects much of how Robinson took advantage with his positioning and movement. As a post player who primarily plays within eight feet of the rim, it sounds odd to call someone a good mover without the ball — how much movement is there, really, when you’re confined to such a small area?
Movement is not about distance traveled. It’s about efficiency and moving in the right ways and areas, which are things that Robinson does as well as anyone in the league. Robinson doesn’t roll “fast” here. I think often that a roll man in ball screens gets idealized as someone who goes 110 miles per hour after flipping their hips, but the more I watch, the more convinced I am that timing is so much more important in these situations than speed.
First flip of the hips, Robinson opens himself up on the slip if R.J. Barrett wants to hit the overhead. Robinson then pivots as Barrett swings the ball, opening himself up for Randle. Here’s the slick part: As soon as Randle shows he’s shooting, Robinson takes a few steps back, gets low for a 7-footer, and hits the body he knows is coming back into the picture off the initial ball pressure (Allen rotating back).
That initial set of actions is phenomenal, but the next part is even more key. Robinson doesn’t just watch the ball once he has position — he works to keep position, continually tracks the ball, and adjusts for its trajectory. He kind of shuffles in a crescent around the rim, always keeping attached to his defender so he can best create separation the moment the ball comes into play.
The strength Robinson shows in his core and lower body, warding off opposing bigs and securing positioning, is the biggest area of growth in his career.
There were countless possessions during his rookie contract where he would get initial position and get bumped off, or try to jump first rather than jump right. So much of that comes back to how much more capable he is of handling and playing through contact now. It’s been present all season, and has been a bright spot in his post defense, as well.
It can be easy to forget while watching Robinson put a forearm into Allen’s side and push him across the lane that he’s only 240 pounds. Robinson is just that strong now. It also speaks to the subtlety of the work he puts in. To be a player who dominates with strength and positioning in the league, you have to be stealthy. Loud motions and overpowering moves lead to a tight whistle.
An extra step or two backwards on this seal screen and Robinson likely gets hit with an offensive foul. With the quick hop step and attention to the ball, he a tip-in that looks awfully easy. But here’s the thing: “Easy” offense is the result of hard work, and Robinson’s growth into one of the finest low-usage offensive players in the league showcases that. His career-low usage percentage of 10.1 percent comes off as not ideal, but that loses sight of the constant work and effort put in during possessions to find his own offense, own the paint, and dominate at the rim.
As the Knicks seek to beat the Miami Heat and make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2000, Robinson’s play will likely prove pivotal in a series that hearkens back to an era where post play and physicality reigned supreme. In an age defined by spacing, ball skills, and a premium on technique, Mitchell Robinson is making his mark by doing the dirty work.