With Julius Randle out, Obi Toppin getting more playing time
CHARLOTTE — On most teams, especially those fighting to hang on to the last strands of hope of a postseason berth, losing their leading scorer and floor leader to an injury might seem a time for panic. But for the Knicks — or more to the point, their fan base — Julius Randle sitting out opened the door for the player they have been waiting to see more of: Obi Toppin.
As the Knicks season winds down there has been more of an outcry to transition to youth, particularly with Derrick Rose and Nerlens Noel still sidelined as they have been for months. It hasn’t just been for Toppin, but also for rookies Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride. Those two have seen their playing team increase as the season has worn on but Toppin has remained stuck behind Randle, who until Tuesday had missed just two games this season when he tested positive for COVID.
Toppin got the start Tuesday against Atlanta at Madison Square Garden and again Wednesday night against the Hornets with Randle sidelined again with a sore quadriceps tendon and more front court time opened up with Mitchell Robinson also sitting out with a sore lower back. Toppin had 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists in just under 24 minutes against Atlanta. And even that might not be enough to appease those who want to see just what the Knicks have in the 2020 lottery pick.
Toppin sat out the entire fourth quarter as Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau turned to veteran Taj Gibson. He came out after his fifth foul with 2:42 left in the third quarter and never returned.
“It was really the way the game was flowing,” Thibodeau said. “That group that started the fourth, they had a pretty good run going. And then Taj, it’s his experience, his defense and also the matchup with [Danilo] Gallinari is something you’re concerned about. So those were the reasons. And obviously, the five fouls, we got to that point with five minutes to go where you gotta [decide], OK, who are we closing with? And I went with the group that was in there. So that was basically it. But I wouldn’t hesitate to put him in in that situation, either.”
Still, the opportunities are limited when Randle is available. After leading the NBA in minutes per game last season at 37.6, he has decreased slightly but still is leading the Knicks at 35.5. And in his absence the Knicks have experimented with RJ Barrett shifting over to power forward with his versatile defensive ability.
Thibodeau spoke positively about Toppin before Wednesday’s game.
“To me, the best thing he does is run the floor really well and moves the ball side to side,” he said. "He’s very instinctive. The defense is coming. His team defense has vastly improved. He made good strides. Overall, he’s played well.
“[The defense] is part of learning. He had some stretches that were really good. Some things, obviously, he can do better. He adds a different element to us.”
“I know what I have to do when I'm on the court,” Toppin said after the game. “Run the floor, catch lobs — if RJ throws it to me. But I know what I gotta do when I'm out there. Bring a lot of energy. Run the floor. Just have fun when I'm out there.”
NOTES & QUOTES: Evan Fournier entered Wednesday’s game just three three-pointers from tying John Starks' single-season franchise record of 217.