On what could have been an embarrassing night for the Knicks, Quentin Grimes did what his team’s front office could not: He locked down Donovan Mitchell.
For the first time since the New York native was dealt to the Cavaliers and not the Knicks, Mitchell returned to the Garden on Sunday. He had a chance to demonstrate to the franchise and its fans that he is the type of star worthy of emptying all the assets in a team’s trade vault, which Cleveland essentially did.
The Knicks held on to their treasure trove of picks and the young pieces they hoard, including Grimes, whom they did not want to send to Utah.
For one game at least, Grimes showed why the Knicks have held him tightly — by tightening his hold on Mitchell.
Mitchell scored 23 points but on 8-for-22 shooting and went 2 of 11 from 3-point range, blanketed by the physical Grimes everywhere he went.
“I knew that was going to be a big matchup with everything that happened this summer,” Grimes said after his Knicks held an opponent under 100 points for the first time this season in the 92-81 win. “That’s one of the best players in the NBA. Had to stay locked in, and I feel like I did a good job on him.”
Grimes forced the ball out of Mitchell’s hands often. He used his 4-inch advantage to contest shots but also was quick enough to cut off driving lanes.
He fought over screens and showed solid strength and his impressive defensive ability for a second straight game. In Saturday’s loss to the Mavericks, he glued himself to the taller Luka Doncic. When Grimes was guarding Mitchell and Doncic — two of the premier guards in the game — they shot a combined 7-for-18 for 18 points.
Grimes’ offensive game still needs developing, but the guard has solidified his standing as both a top wing defender and a starter.
“Quentin has great feet. He has strength, anticipation, and you’re going to have to work,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said after the Knicks improved to 11-13 Sunday. “Those [elite] guys, you can guard them great, and their greatness is they’ve got the ability to make [shots]. But if you make them work, then over the course of the game — you make them work for those points, maybe that takes its toll.
“There’s a physicality to Quentin, too. On every play, he’s all-out.”
Grimes missed eight of the first 10 games this season with left foot soreness that he couldn’t shake since training camp. He either did not play or barely played in their next six games, buried in the rotation so he was all but invisible for the first month of the season.
But on Nov. 20, Thibodeau inserted Grimes into the starting lineup and discovered his best wing defender. In eight games, Grimes has been searching for his offensive rhythm, averaging just 8.3 points on 45.2 percent shooting from the field, but has excelled in clinging to the opposing team’s best scorer, as Doncic and Mitchell can attest.
“He’s been playing his butt off every night. It’s huge,” RJ Barrett said Sunday after the Knicks held the Cavs to 34.9 percent shooting. “We need him in that [stopper] role. It’s good, especially what he did tonight against Donovan. That’s not something that’s easy to do. He’s a really good player.”
The emergence of the 2021 first-round pick has come with dominoes. Cam Reddish and Derrick Rose rode the bench Sunday as healthy DNPs for the first time this season, though Thibodeau cited the back-to-back in giving Rose some rest. Reddish had been exploited defensively against the Mavericks and may be falling out of the rotation.
Thibodeau said he feels Grimes, whose 3-point shot has been off, will come around offensively with more time.
As the Knicks evaluate who should be a part of their future, Grimes’ defensive chops — which will be tested again Wednesday against Trae Young’s Hawks at the Garden — can make them feel a bit better about their decisions in the recent past.
“I think people are lying if they say they’re not coming in with an edge and a chip on their shoulder,” Grimes said about being included in trade discussions this offseason. “So just want to come in, just do what I do, not worry about it too much. Because if I do that, I feel like I’ll get sidetracked.
“But come in with my mindset I have every day. I feel like I did that today.”
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