Mitchell Robinson Was The Biggest Big
5:11 PM EDT on April 27, 2023
Supposedly the Cavaliers had the better big men. Jarrett Allen, exemplar of an old-school 5, protects the rim, patrols the glass, and sets boulder screens for the star guards. The 21-year-old Evan Mobley can already do everything conceivable on defense; even Giannis believes he might someday be better than Giannis. These two almost-seven-footers were responsible for the best defense in the regular season, and they shared the floor capably on offense, skilled and savvy enough to throw each other lobs. Surely Allen and Mobley would give the Knicks hell in their first-round playoff series. Instead they both got mashed, game after game, by the one true big, Mitchell Robinson. His 13-point, 18-rebound performance in a series-clinching Game 5 on Wednesday was a suitable farewell to his inferior interior foes.
I can't say I saw this degree of dominance coming. Robinson is in his fifth year in the league, and while his defense was preposterous from the jump, he has not come quite as far in the years since as some fans might have hoped. His reputation lags behind his underlying skill level, too. He's never earned the acclaim of, say, Jarrett Allen, despite working with superior physical tools, which include a 7-foot-4 wingspan and an instantaneous second jump. He has struggled with periodic foot injuries, but also with foul discipline, body composition, and offensive stagnation. He has a habit of getting moody online whenever he feels that coaching has unfairly shrunk his role. As Robinson wrapped up perhaps his most consistent regular season to date, he was still outplayed in the final stretch by backup center Isaiah Hartenstein, who provides slightly more range and significantly more playmaking than layup-or-dunk Mitch.
But Robinson did not need to be versatile to be brutally effective in his first-ever trip to the postseason. (Thanks to a broken foot, he was not around to be pantsed by the Hawks in 2021.) He just had to apply that the same basic principle that has made him such a reliable regular season player: All the floor with paint on it is yours to rule. He had the opposition shooting 46 percent from the rim whenever he was in the vicinity, a full 24 percent below Cleveland's regular-season average. In the battles for post positioning, it was quickly clear that Robinson could outmuscle Allen, let alone the reedy Mobley, who is probably starting a summer residency in the weight room at time of writing.
Robinson's favorite way to demonstrate his superior strength and timing was on the offensive glass. On the series, he maintained a ridiculous 23 percent offensive rebound rate, per Basketball Reference. When fellow bruiser Julius Randle left the game early in Game 5 after tweaking his ankle, the Knicks should have relinquished some of their beef advantage. They did not, because Robinson was there to compensate. In tight playoff games, every offensive rebound can feel like a precious, fluky second chance; Robinson gave the Knicks 11 of those in the Game 5 win, so many that it stopped feeling like a fluke at all.
Tom Thibodeau called Robinson the best offensive rebounder in the league, but no need to take coach's word for it. Jarrett Allen, the direct victim of most of that rebounding, could only salute him, too.