MINNEAPOLIS — It’s a good thing the Timberwolves were without their top three players, because the Knicks’ three most prominent players weren’t on top of their games most of the night.
Julius Randle and RJ Barrett struggled and Kemba Walker had a quiet evening at Target Center. Barrett was scoreless until finally breaking through with eight fourth-quarter points.
The Knicks hung on in an ugly, low-scoring affair against the Timberwolves Lite, mostly because center Mitchell Robinson was a monster all night underneath and the second unit was vibrant enough to nudge the team to a closer-than-it-needed-to-be 96-88 triumph.
Though they were released from COVID-19 protocols, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell were held out by the Timberwolves for conditioning. Otherwise, this could’ve been a different tale.
Robinson was a beast around the rim, cleaning up the Knicks’ many misses. He hauled in offensive rebounds, scored on mostly put-backs and finished with a team-leading 14 points (7-for-8 from the field) and 18 rebounds. Robinson scored off two airballs — one by Randle and one by Walker.
“It was huge, his activity at the rim, altering shots, multiple effort, second chance points, putting pressure on the rim,’’ said a vibrant head coach Tom Thibodeau, who was booed during pregame introductions upon his first game at Minnesota in front of fans since his firing. “You can’t say enough about the way he played. I thought his rebounding and Julius’ rebounding was huge for us.’’
Randle might have rebounded, but he was a hideous 5-for-19 with four turnovers, and he finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds in 37 minutes. The Knicks (16-18) won their second straight in kicking off a four-game road trip.
Robinson, who has battled conditioning all season as he returned from last season’s broken foot, said he’s starting to turn the corner, though he revealed he’s playing with a sprained left wrist, which he suffered a few games ago.
“I liked how I felt myself getting into condition better,’’ said Robinson, who is 30-for-33 from the field in his past six games. “I feel like I’m running a lot better. It’s working out great.’’
Earlier this month, Robinson lost his starting job to Nerlens Noel but it looks like he’ll maintain it once Noel is out of COVID-19 protocols. The Knicks are back to the starting lineup that began the season.
Robinson’s six offensive rebounds and ability to be in the right position on missed shots were uncanny.
“It really is just conditioning,’’ Robinson said. “You can think better, play better. I’m just active. I’m a high energy guy. That’s mainly the key. You can’t really teach that.’’
Barrett, in his second game back from COVID-19 protocols, looked weakened and was held scoreless through much of the game before he finally broke through with eight points in the fourth quarter. He finished 3-for-10, while the Knicks shot just 41 percent overall.
Walker, meanwhile, had his moments, but didn’t come close to his Christmas Day triple-double — 10 points, two assists, four rebounds.
The Timberwolves were within five points with 1:11 left in a game won by the bench brigade and Robinson.
“Right now it’s choppy,’’ Thibodeau said. “You’ve got guys in and out. But I loved — I thought our defense was really good.’’
Minnesota was breathing down the Knicks’ necks before Walker got going midway through the third quarter. He canned an 18-footer, a 3-pointer and his airball shot was caught underneath by Robinson for a dunk.
The second unit built a 17-point lead midway through the second quarter. The quintet of Immanuel Quickley, in his return from COVID-19, Quentin Grimes (11 points, 3-for-9 on 3s) Alec Burks, Obi Toppin and Taj Gibson were flowing.
Grimes buried two straight 3-pointers, Toppin and Quickley were spreading the ball around and Gibson was scoring inside and Burks from outside.
The Knicks’ lead swelled to 39-22. But when the starters began to reenter, the lead dissipated. Randle was particularly inept: He had the ball stripped from him by point guard Jordan McLaughlin, who raced in for a layup that turned the momentum in Minnesota’s favor.
That 39-22 lead became a 44-41 edge by halftime after the Knicks were outscored 22-5 to close out the second quarter.
Barrett played just 8:19 in the half, with Thibodeau benching him after separate four-minute stints. He shot poorly on Christmas Day (4-for-15) and went scoreless by halftime, launching three bricks.
“You see it — first couple of games trying to find my rhythm,’’ Barrett said. “I think any time you’re out for 10 days it’s going to affect you, whether you have COVID or not. So just trying to get back into shape, back into game shape.’’
The depleted Timberwolves were led by uber-athletic forward Jaden McDaniels (18 points) and Malik Beasley (20 points).
Thibodeau, back at his old stomping grounds, was booed during pregame introductions, and the Minnesota fans must be used to these types of defensive struggles when he prowls the sidelines, barking. He wore a mask on the sidelines for the first time this season — a sign of the times.