The New York Knicks can’t stop winning. On Saturday afternoon, the Knicks picked up their ninth consecutive win, pulling away late for a 120-103 win over the Raptors.
Julius Randle is the catalyst for just about everything the Knicks are doing, as he piled up 31 points and 10 rebounds in another sensational performance. Derrick Rose’s presence as the backup (but closing) point guard has been massive since he was acquired earlier this season, and R.J. Barrett has taken a massive leap as a scorer and defender in his sophomore season. However, late in games one figure’s presence shows up over and over again, and that is Nerlens Noel.
Noel has had a long, winding journey to get to New York, starting in Philadelphia before being dealt to Dallas and later signing with the Thunder. After a quality 2029-20 season as a bench big for the Thunder, he still didn’t find much traction in free agency and ended up with the Knicks on a bargain of a 1-year, $5 million deal. That signing became a godsend for this Knicks team, particularly after Mitchell Robinson fractured his foot, and Noel has become their defensive closer.
What Noel is doing with the Knicks isn’t new. He’s always been a terrific shot-blocker with great length, timing, an uncanny ability to stay vertical, and the quickness to stride over from the weakside to contest and block shots. What the Knicks have done — and the Thunder did a year ago — is fully embrace who Nerlens is and put him in lineups that let him thrive. The Knicks often close with Rose, Barrett, Reggie Bullock, Randle, and Noel, leaning on Nerlens’ ability to challenge at the rim to allow their perimeter players to be aggressive at the point of attack.
Take this play late against Toronto, where the Knicks swarm the ball at the top of the key, but the Raptors are able to move the ball until they get it to Siakam wide open in the lane for what normally would be a dunk. Nerlens has other ideas.
Nerlens is not new to this. HE'S TRUE TO THIS. pic.twitter.com/j9N7RhOExn
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 24, 2021
Watch as he presses up on the pick-and-roll, wheels around to get to the corner to contest when the pass initially tries to go that way, then dives back to the paint once Siakam gets the ball and meets him at the rim for a block. His helpside defense is truly something to behold, and it allows Tom Thibodeau to have more lineup versatility to put better shooters and offensive players on the floor and have them play aggressive and press high to force opponents off the three-point line and funnel them to the paint. Noel had two other blocks in the second half, each as a help defender, that illustrate his value to this aggressive New York defense.
Nerlens Noel: Protector of the Paint pic.twitter.com/YcmpWBl8lV
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 24, 2021
The way he glides across the lane and meets shots at their apex is just a natural gift, and in New York he’s found a team that just wants him to be what he is and nothing more. He’s a great frontcourt complement to the ball-dominant Randle on offense, never looking for a shot but happy to clean up scraps on lobs and putback opportunities. On defense, he’s an elite rover, so as the Knicks aggressively double and scramble out to shooters on the perimeter, he gets to put his insane instincts and shot-blocking abilities to great use to clean up when anyone gets to the basket.
THE NERLENS WALL pic.twitter.com/QVtOusROez
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 22, 2021
He’s such a unique defender because he’s an elite shot-blocker but isn’t especially big, which requires you to use him differently than you would a Rudy Gobert or Clint Capela or Brook Lopez. He’s not someone you want just sitting in drop coverage, although he’s capable there, but the Knicks ask him to use all his athletic gifts. Look at the way he steps up to hedge on the pick-and-roll with Bogdan Bogdanovic and then drops back to cover the middle before recognizing the baseline drive is coming and knowing that his teammates have the strongside covered and the only place the layup can go is on a reverse so he calmly strides over and stuffs it with two hands.
The Nerlens late-game block highlight reel can’t be complete without his ridiculous stuff of Brandon Ingram late to help the Knicks beat the Pelicans last week, as he strafed
STOP TRYING HIM.
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 18, 2021
This one is just, simply, elite timing and great hands to get all-ball on a dunk attempt. Noel’s uptick in minutes has been a bit by necessity with the Robinson injury, but what he’s providing them is making sure that he’ll have a robust market as a free agent next year. Even with Robinson returning, Noel still might have a home in New York, as he’s clearly become a Thibodeau favorite and allows the Knicks to play the aggressive defensive style they want to. Robinson has similar abilities on that end, and being able to deploy both would be quite the luxury.
In any case, as New York looks ahead to their playoff run, this win streak is showing a lot in terms of why they’re a real contender to push some of the East’s best. It’s not just nuclear performances from Julius Randle — although those help — but a collective effort on both ends that’s leading them on this 9-game winning streak, with Noel providing the highlight reel plays on the defensive end to complement Randle, Barrett, and the rest’s efforts offensively.