Starting center Nerlens Noel is the poster child for the 2020-21 Knicks’ grit and grind — the undersized, unsung heavyweight warrior of a league-leading defense.
After getting elbowed in the face by Clint Capela against Atlanta on Wednesday, Noel left for the locker room for treatment, came back to finish the game and registered two key blocks late.
Noel played again Saturday and recorded four more blocks against Toronto. And, yes, he’s still not fully recovered nor is backup center Taj Gibson, also injured against Atlanta and now protecting his cut eyelid with goggles.
Following Sunday’s practice, Noel revealed the Atlanta smash-up left him with “four, five stitches’’ still in his mouth.
“Oh man. I still got it going on,’’ Noel said following Sunday’s practice. “My mouth is still pretty swollen. Painful a little bit. I’ve been able to keep ice on it. I’ll be all right.’’
The 27-year-old lottery-pick-turned-journeyman has been more than all right in a season he wasn’t expected to be the starter.
Mitchell Robinson broke his hand, then his foot and here we are. Noel is the centerpiece for the backline of a likely Eastern Conference playoff team after signing a modest one-year, $5 million deal.
Knicks point guard Derrick Rose said he is in awe of Noel’s interior dominance this season because he’s not big and burly. Noel is listed at a generous 6-foot-11 and 220 pounds. Rose said he “appreciates’’ Noel being willing to do all the dirty work and not worry about “touches.’’
“I never really paid attention to him because he played most his time in the West,’’ Rose said. “Seeing him up close is totally different. He’s like a freak of nature for how skinny he is. He has a presence of a real [big man]. Jumping the way he does after having an ACL tear shows he’s committed to his body.’’
Averaging 2.2 blocks per game, Noel is tied for third in the league with Capela. He has more than made up for Robinson’s regular-season-ending injury.
Not having the bulk has nothing to do with shot blocking, says Noel.
“I’ve had the same body type my whole life,’’ Noel said. “It’s not football so I think I’ll be all right. I’ve been going against bigger guys like [Andre] Drummond, Steve Adams since high school literally. Nothing I haven’t been through and done. I use my strength, quickness and angles.’’
Tom Thibodeau credits Noel’s shot blocking to “great anticipation, great timing, great feet.’’
Alec Burks remains in COVID-19 protocol for Monday’s game against Phoenix. He could return Wednesday against the Bulls as it will be past the 10-day quarantine recommended by the CDC that the NBA has adopted. Burks, however, might have to get back into playing shape. He has missed five games — all wins.
According to Forbes, the Knicks are the only team in the league to rank in the top five this month in both defensive rating (allowing 107.2 per 100 possessions) and offensive rating (116.5 per 100 possessions). In their 13 April games, the Knicks lead the NBA in overall net rating which combines the two figures.
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