Livescore Thursday, April 25
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Mitchell Robinson saw his first NBA action in almost four months for the Knicks on Wednesday night against the Toronto Raptors, scoring eight points on 3-of-3 shooting and swatting two shots in 12 minutes off the bench.

His return from an early December ankle injury was a welcome sight for Knicks fans, who watched New York compete for most of the season without their starting center.

Before going down, Robinson was in the middle of a career year. He was putting up historically great offensive rebounding numbers and displaying a new level of maturity and anticipation defensively that would have had him in Defensive Player of the Year talks if he stayed healthy.

Now he’s back at an opportune time to ramp back into game shape and complete the Knicks’ two-headed monster at the five spot as the playoffs creep closer. But his role going forward may look different than where he left off.

Robinson came off the bench in his return, and it’s possible he continues to even when he’s at full strength. The Knicks have started Isaiah Hartenstein for 40 games now, close to a majority of the season, and may want to avoid disrupting the chemistry he’s built with Jalen Brunson and the other starters.

Robinson may have been paired with Julius Randle for longer, but it was Hartenstein that rounded out the starting five during New York’s 14-2 record in January, and has had a major impact on keeping the Knicks afloat since their rash of injuries. The defensive potential of playing Robinson alongside OG Anunoby is tantalizing, but the offensive dynamics provided by Hartenstein may be the deciding factor.

Brunson has gotten postseason defensive treatment as the lone reliable creator on the Knicks since February, faced with bigger and longer defenders, with recent matchups blitzing every one of his pick-and-rolls and the weak side help pressure constantly collapsing on Brunson when he’s on the ball.

Hartenstein has served as an effective outlet despite being an extra non-shooter in the lineup, dominating out of the short roll with his passing and inside scoring.

Those are qualities Robinson hasn’t quite sharpened yet. You could even see this play out in his return game, as Toronto was able to crowd Brunson on Robinson screens more successfully than with Hartenstein.

Combine that with the Knicks’ offense sputtering their last two postseason appearances, and going with Hartenstein in the starting five makes a lot of sense. Robinson could then feast inside on bench units, normally being able to dominate the league’s starters.

This wouldn’t mean not seeing any of Robinson with the starters — he even got some run with them Wednesday night. It’s even possible this decision isn’t set in stone and is up to some experimentation over the last couple of weeks of the regular season.

But in the case Robinson does remain a reserve, it will be interesting to see how he gels with an unfamiliar unit. With a full roster, he’d be backing up the starters alongside Miles McBride, Josh Hart and Bojan Bogdanovic — assuming Precious Achiuwa and Alec Burks are the next men up.

Robinson has yet to play with Bogdanovic and only shared the court with McBride for 15 minutes this season. Hart is the teammate Robinson has played with plenty and put up the best net rating with this year, suggesting the pairing could be fearsome off the bench.

McBride and Bogdanovic’s shooting should fit nicely, but the Knicks will need them and whichever star rounds out the lineup to pick up the creating slack. Randle has nice chemistry with Robinson on the pick-and-roll and would make this lineup massive, but the Brunson-McBride backcourt has taken off late this season, making either choice an intriguing one.

Robinson showed how much he’s learned and developed defensively, but come the playoffs he’ll need to recreate that growth on offense — not in the ball-handling, post up move categories, but anticipating the pressure on the role man, getting open as the outlet and making the right four-on-three play from there.

Whether it’s Brunson, McBride or Bogdanovic using a Robinson screen, the Knicks will see plenty of this coverage in the playoffs. As a counter, expect some Hart-Robinson pick-and-roll combinations to get their two non-shooters in the action with spacing around them.

Whatever role he’s destined to play, when fully healthy Robinson has cemented himself as one of the best centers in the league on the offensive glass and defensive end. Getting that kind of weapon back in time for the postseason race is crucial to the Knicks’ chances, and they just went up huge.

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