In the deciding minutes of a game the Knicks needed to have, they relied heavily upon a 23-year-old rookie center.
The Knicks did not pull out Sunday’s game against the Nets, but they did come away pleased with what they saw from Jericho Sims.
The second-round pick played a career-high 23 minutes — some of the best minutes of his short professional life — during the loss at Barclays Center and was on the floor for all of the fourth quarter aside from the final 13.4 seconds.
In a game the Knicks lost by three, they outscored the Nets by 20 when Sims, in his 27th game of the season, was on the floor. The big man from Texas is raw — especially offensively — but his skill set and athleticism are making the prospect of losing soon-to-be free agent Mitchell Robinson more palatable.
More gifted with mobility than any other Knicks power forward or center, Sims was the best option in slowing Nic Claxton, another young, agile center. Sims altered some shots that Robinson and Taj Gibson couldn’t.
“I thought Jericho gave us great energy. He’s big, he’s a hard guy to throw over. I think that was good for us,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after Sims went 3-for-3 for six points with 10 rebounds and a block. “He can get out there, trap, then get back to the basket, give us protection at the rim.”
Sims, who has seen more time in the second half with the playoffs likely too distant to chase, is known for his jumping ability, and a second-quarter hookup on a pick-and-roll with Alec Burks — who lofted the ball high in the air for Sims to slam down — reminded of his 44.5-inch max vertical, which opened eyes at the NBA Draft Combine.
But his work defensively shone through against the Nets. He can hedge on screens, briefly double the player with the ball and scramble back to his man, a skill he displayed often.
With about 1 ¹/₂ minutes remaining in a tie game, Sims abandoned his man to double-team Kevin Durant around half-court. The Knicks successfully got the ball out of Durant’s hands, and James Johnson ended up with a clean drive to the hoop. But Sims was quick enough to recover and contested the shot at the rim well. Sims then tipped the rebound to Julius Randle.
There is a lot of talent for the Knicks to work with defensively. On the other side of the court, Sims leaps basically off trampolines and is 15-for-16 on dunks this season — but has taken one jumper in 242 career minutes. He missed.
“On offense, he’s a work in progress,” said Thibodeau, whose Knicks were off Monday and host the Trail Blazers on Wednesday. “He’s gotta help us execute. He’s gotta understand what we’re trying to get done.”