During a depressing season that already has cost Knicks coach David Fizdale and president Steve Mills their jobs, youngsters Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett have stood above the misery.
It hasn’t all been a player-development disaster. Barrett has shown flashes and Robinson is on a full-fledged surge.
Both were on full display in a skid-busting 125-115 victory over the Bulls on Saturday at the Garden. Robinson scored a career-high 23 points with 10 rebounds and Barrett added 19 points as the Knicks snapped a six-game losing streak.
It was fitting that in the final 40 seconds the young duo hooked up, with Barrett feeding Robinson for one final alley-oop. When Robinson went to the line in the final seconds, the crowd chanted “MVP.’’
The pair combined to go 19-for-26 from the field.
The win comes at a good time, just as agent Leon Rose is on the verge of taking over as Knicks president — even if there is no official announcement Sunday.
The Knicks also got a rare offensive boost from 2018 lottery pick Kevin Knox, who showed his rookie aggressiveness. After having scored just one point in Philadelphia on Thursday to continue his sophomore jinx, Knox pumped in 12 points in 21 minutes, scoring from inside and outside.
Knox was 4-of-9 from the field and 2-of-3 from 3-point land. Knox also scrambled to secure a loose ball with 6:11 left that led to a Bobby Portis inside bucket that put the Knicks up 106-99.
Before the game, Knicks interim coach Mike Miller said of Robinson, “He’s playing the best basketball of his career.’’
Miller still has convoluted reasons why he won’t start Robinson, but the center came off the bench and supplied his recent usual high-powered energy. He scored eight points in his first four minutes on the court and had with 12 points and five rebounds by halftime. Robinson finished with nine rebounds and two assists.
Barrett, meanwhile, was on fire early — even from 3-point range. The third overall pick made seven of eight field goals in the first half — 3-of-3 from 3-point land. He scored 17 first-half points, ending the session by hitting a stepback 3-pointer that gave the Knicks a 66-53 halftime lead after a 9-0 run.
Veteran Taj Gibson returned from back spasms after missing one game and was thrust back into the starting lineup at center, scoring the Knicks’ first seven points before giving way to Robinson’s athletic flurry.
In the first half, Robinson scored twice on alley-oop feeds from Elfrid Payton, scored on a rare driving reverse bucket and had a powerhouse offensive-rebound putback. Payton secured nine first-half assists.
Miller admitted it’s a conundrum whether to make Robinson the starter at center with 22 games left. Miller said he has kept Robinson as a reserve because he doesn’t want to mess with a good thing. The second-year 7-footer has grown comfortable coming off the bench.
When Gibson missed Thursday’s game, Miller went with Bobby Portis as starting center. Miller eventually started Robinson to open the second half because he was much more effective than Portis, who finished a minus-18.
“[It’s] how well Mitchell is playing,’’ Miller said. “It’s that simple. If there comes a time we need to change it, we’ll change it. We got into the decision the other night: Should we go ahead and start him now [or] keep him in his role? We kept him in his role and started him in the third quarter and he put together another good game. Taj has gotten of us off to great starts. Mitchell is so effective in the role he’s playing.”
Robinson, with inside force on both ends, leads the NBA in field-goal percentage (73.5). In fact, if the season ended today, Mitchell’s field-goal rate would rank as highest in league history — topping Wilt Chamberlain’s 72.7 from 1972-73, his final season.
To qualify, Robinson needs 300 field goals made by season’s end, meaning he has to average 2.7 the rest of the way.
“Starting not starting, it doesn’t matter,’’ Robinson said before the game. “I’m just here to play and play hard. If I start it’s cool. If not, not going to cry about.’’
The New Orleans product acknowledged he has hit his career peak. His averages are up to 9.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
“I’m playing better than I have before,’’ Robinson said.
Robinson credited “having Taj around’’ to help his “focus.’’
“He’s played well throughout the season and a pocket or two he wouldn’t’ be as effective,’’ Miller said. “Things are coming together playing with such force and energy.”
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