Nerlens Noel helps Knicks pass Mitchell Robinson test


The Knicks were already missing center Mitchell Robinson, who may undergo hand surgery this week.

Their new starting center Nerlens Noel picked up three early fouls. Backup center Taj Gibson got tagged with four fouls in the second quarter.

Atlanta took 25 free throws in the first half. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau went briefly with his alternate plan of using Julius Randle at center and rookie Obi Toppin at power forward.

It’s not an ideal formation, especially against Atlanta center Clint Capela, who finished with 15 points and 18 rebounds.

Fortunately for the Knicks, Noel returned to put forth a grinding second half amid massive foul trouble as the Knicks moved to 2-0 since Robinson’s injury.

In the third quarter, the Hawks raced to a 72-66 lead before the Knicks staged a 23-11 run. It was a run Noel helped ignite when he made two straight blocks — one on Skylar Mays, the other on Kevin Huerter, the Albany-area native who struggled mightily (2 of 12).

“I was concerned,’’ Thibodeau said of his centers’ foul trouble. “We talked about the way they draw fouls. It was called tight and we had to adjust. I thought Nerlens was terrific. It’s not an easy matchup.’’

The box score for Noel doesn’t necessarily sparkle, but he did all the gritty defensive work that allowed the Knicks to pull through. And he did so playing through five fouls, picking up his fifth with 8:36 left.

Noel scored six points (3 of 3 from the field), adding three blocks, two steals and four rebounds, finishing a plus-17 in 27 minutes.

Gibson scored just one point in 16 minutes but was gritty on a night Toppin was mostly a nonfactor in 11 minutes.

The Hawks’ Trae Young-led attack was stymied in the 28-22 fourth quarter.

“The pick-and-roll coverage is huge when you play that team,’’ Thibodeau said. “You have to commit to the ball and commit to getting back, commit to rebounding. It requires great effort. You can’t relax a second. Capela puts pressure on you, [John] Collins puts pressure on you and Young is a load to deal with. Those guys looked at a lot of pick-and-rolls. Some we defended extremely well. Some not as well as we liked. But we had a great effort from both centers.’’

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