Mitchell Robinson trotted to the bank with a grin so wide you could see it from the other side of the bridge.
Only Latrell Sprewell received a louder ovation than the Knicks’ starting center Wednesday night.
It took a Knicks legend on the court during an elimination game 5 to the standing ovation Robinson received when he broke the Miami Heat’s late game plans.
Down by eight, with under 5:30 left in the fourth quarter of the Heat’s futile attempt to wrap up their second-round playoff series against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the Heat called their second intentional foul on Robinson, a sharpshooter historically poor free throw shooter, shooting worse than 50% from the line in each of his last three seasons.
The lean, athletic man stepped to the foul line and said four words to himself: “I’m knocking these down.”
Robinson did the first with his funky — some would say broken — free-kick form, then motioned for the crowd to cheer harder.
“The crowd, they helped me,” he said after the game. “They basically showed me to believe in myself and I knocked them down.”
It became clear that this was Miami’s game plan the next time on the floor — the infamous strategy of breaking down an opposing team’s worst free throw shooter, popularized by Shaquille O’Neal’s struggles that quickly became coined as the ” Hack-a-Shaq”.
The Heat fouled Mitch twice in the final minutes of the final period, the next attempt off the ball on the very next possession.
“We didn’t expect that,” senior Jalen Brunson said of Miami’s foul-mouthed approach after playing all 48 minutes in Game 5. “They’re a great coaching staff there. But I think we trust Mitch no matter what.”
This time, the embattled shooter made both free throws and exited the game to a longer and louder ovation when head coach Tom Thibodeau pulled him from the game seconds later.
And when the seven-foot center stepped to the line with 21.3 seconds left in regulation with the Knicks up by six, Robinson calmly made the first free throw to effectively end the game. He missed the second, but Julius Randle came up with the rebound, took out the Heat’s closest defender and sank home the final basket of the night — thanks to a well-placed missed free throw by his starting center.
“It was a big time for Mitch to be ready,” his teammate RJ Barrett said. “He works on those free throws every day, so let him come out, especially in a do-or-die game like this. To be able to step up and make those free throws was huge.”
Robinson finished the night shooting four-of-eight from the foul line, roughly matching his career average of one free throw made every two attempts. It’s a step up for the big man, though, considering he shot just 3-of-12 from the line in the first four games of this series and just 4-of-11 from the line in the first-round series against him. Cleveland Cavaliers.
“If he goes there and misses them, he misses them,” Brunson said. “We’re going to go out there and have our backs on the other side of the ball. We have great confidence in him. He made a couple, felt good and made another couple.”
Free throws made are something the Knicks will need more of if they hope to turn a 3-1 playoff series deficit into a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. Offense for the Knicks has already been hard to come by. Robinson will have to knock down every free throw he gets his hands on.
After Wednesday night, he should know that a sold-out crowd is ready to sing his praises for every shot he knocks down. His head coach, however, sang praises for reasons other than making timely shots at the line.
“That was huge,” Thibodeau said of Robinson’s free throws. “And obviously there were huge free throws, but his rebound in the fourth, but not just the ones that were in his zone, but the ones that were out of his zone. To go and bring him said a lot. Rebounding is big in this game and I think – obviously we have to cut down on our turnovers – but I think rebounding, that’s a big part of our defense and we have to continue to make sure we prioritize. This one.”