Knicks’ Nerlens Noel has strong defensive game in return to lineup

One center enters, two centers leave.

With backup big man Taj Gibson sitting out because of a sore groin — and starter Mitchell Robinson leaving in the third quarter after taking an elbow to the nose — Nerlens Noel logged 29 minutes off the bench in the Knicks’ 106-99 win at the Garden on Saturday over the Rockets.

Noel recorded three blocked shots in his first appearance since Nov. 8 after missing the previous four games with a knee injury.

“Nerlens gives you elite rim protection, great decision-making, multiple effort guy. So you couldn’t ask anything more from your center,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He doesn’t give up on plays, he doesn’t give in. So that’s huge.”

Robinson was struck in the nose by Jae’Sean Tate’s elbow early in the third quarter and did not return to the game, but Noel continued playing after he also got his mouth bloodied by Christian Wood’s elbow later in the period.

Noel, who was signed to a three-year contract worth $27.7 million over the summer after finishing third in the NBA with 2.2 blocks per game, said he also expects to play Sunday in Chicago.

Nerlens Noel defends against Christian Wood during the Knicks' 106-99 win over the Rockets.
Nerlens Noel defends against Christian Wood during the Knicks’ 106-99 win over the Rockets.
Jason Szenes

“My knee was in a decent place. Wasn’t the best place but you know I felt good enough to get out there and give what I have,” Noel said. “My wind, I feel good about [Sunday]. I’m looking forward to it.”

Thibodeau added that Gibson is day-to-day after straining his groin in Wednesday’s loss to the Magic “just through the course of the game.” Of Robinson, he said only, “we’ll see how he is [Sunday].”

Kemba Walker registered nine points and three assists in 21 minutes, and Thibodeau didn’t rule out the veteran guard playing in Sunday’s second of back-to-back games against the Bulls.

Walker sat out the front end of the Knicks’ previous back-to-back situation Nov. 7 against Cleveland.

“We’ll talk to him in the morning. See where he’s at,” Thibodeau said. “He’s been great. We trust him. The medical people, he’s done a lot of stuff to take care of his body and if he feels good, he’ll go, and if he needs a day, we’ll give him a day. You trust Kemba. He knows his body better than anyone.”