Without both centers, Knicks hand Nets 17th loss in last 22 games



Some teams know expect to win. Others become accustomed to losing.

It was the difference between a Knicks team that won its 10th game in the 12 that have transpired since the OG Anunoby deal, and a Brooklyn Nets team whose 108-103 loss to the cross-bridge rival at Barclays Center embodied a months-long free fall from a distance grace.

Without their two starting centers Mitchell Robinson (ankle surgery) and Isaiah Hartenstein (day-to-day, left Achilles tendinopathy), the shorthanded Knicks got into a dogfight with a Nets team clawing for what it hoped to be its fifth win since Dec. 13.

The Nets entered Tuesday’s matchup losers of 15 of their last 20 games.

And an OG Anunoby block led to a fast break opportunity for Jalen Brunson, who touch-passed to the trailing Julius Randle for a two-handed dunk that handed the Nets loss No. 16 during this stretch.

On the ensuing possession, after another Knicks stop, Josh Hart’s double-clutch layup over Nic Claxton’s contest forced Jacque Vaughn to call a timeout.

The Knicks trailed, 93-85, at the 7:04 mark of the fourth quarter.

They outscored the Nets, 23-10, for the remainder of the period.

Brunson and Randle scored 30 points apiece, and both shot 50 percent from the field or better. After recording his first triple-double of the season and 14th of his career in Saturday’s victory over the Toronto Raptors, Randle hung an additional nine rebounds and seven assists against the Nets on Tuesday.

Anunoby made his defensive impact known with four steals and two blocks, and Donte DiVincenzo hit three of his attempts from downtown.

It was a collective offensive effort that thwarted generational performances from both Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton.

Bridges hit seven threes for 36 points and Claxton recorded 16 rebounds including six on the offensive glass.

If you didn’t know how important the center position is to maintaining balance for the Knicks, Tuesday’s narrow escape was a clear reminder.

Without Hartenstein, who is averaging 7.7 points and 11.5 rebounds since Robinson’s Dec. 5 injury against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Nets out-rebounded the Knicks on the offensive glass, 13-11, though the Knicks won on the glass overall, 42-40, thanks to six different players who recorded four or more rebounds.

Jericho Sims impressed with four blocks in the start for Hartenstein but recorded just four rebounds and six points. Precious Achiuwa, who the Knicks received as part of the Anunoby deal, was plus-11 off the bench and logged six points and nine rebounds.

“Jericho has filled in before. He’s played well for us,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said on Tuesday. “I think our record when he starts is [now 4-2]. So we have a lot of confidence in him. We got hurt unfortunately. Then Precious came in and Precious was terrific in our last game. So next man get in there and get it done.”

The Knicks center spot is sure to be tested on Thursday when they host two-time league MVP Nikola Jokic and the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets on Thursday.

“Just keep it simple. You don’t have to change anything. Play to your strength,” Thibodeau said. “Cover up your weaknesses. Understand who you’re on the floor with, what their strengths and weaknesses are and execute,” he said. “That’s all you have to do. Every player [is] different. Precious is not Isaiah. Isaiah’s not Mitch. Just play to your strengths.”

Gang rebounding and grit worked against the Nets.

The Nuggets will be a different caliber of opponent.



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