New York Knicks guard Obi Toppin drives the ball against...

New York Knicks guard Obi Toppin drives the ball against the Washington Wizards in the first half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Obi Toppin spent 10 days in bed after testing positive for COVID-19, dealing with a mild cough and watching a lot of basketball.

He felt the strangeness of the situation — the unease that comes with being well enough to play but infected with a virus that could spread to others — and worried that he wouldn’t be back in time for the Knicks' Christmas Day matinee against the Hawks on Saturday.

What he also did was analyze his team’s play, including some of the deficiencies that have sunk the early portion of this season, and assess what needs to improve once ill and exposed players return from the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

"I was talking to Thibs [Tom Thibodeau] about how we need more energy and it's like we just don't have that energy spark right now," Toppin said, one day removed from his first game back. "And I feel like we're definitely going to get it soon, like really soon. It's just going to hit us one day and we're going to get on top of our game and start winning a lot more games now."

The Knicks (14-18) have lost nine of their last 12 games since beating the Hawks on Nov. 27. Though their problems likely extend far beyond their energy — their defense has been as permeable as a wet sponge, and Thibodeau expressed his displeasure with it both after their 114-107 loss to the Wizards on Thursday night and after their walkthrough practice Friday — it’s true that COVID-19 has knocked out a number of their usual sparks.

That is changing, though. Toppin is back, and it seems likely that RJ Barrett, who cleared the protocols Thursday but was held out of the Wizards game for conditioning reasons, could see some playing time Saturday. Quentin Grimes was active on Thursday, though he didn’t play, and Immanuel Quickley returned on Friday.

Kevin Knox, Miles McBride and Nerlens Noel remain on the COVID list and Derrick Rose is out for eight weeks after undergoing ankle surgery.

"I think being mentally tough when you face adversity is probably the most important thing in life," Thibodeau said. "We've had guys out, as has most of the league, and it's how quickly we can adapt. We talked about that today. There are things we can do.

"There are a lot of guys out there that are playing that were here for one day. They're giving everything they have and we have an appreciation for that. And then guys that are still here, they're playing with guys they haven't played with before, so how do you help them along, how do you get everyone connected? And we all share in that responsibility."

It’ll help that the Hawks they face on Christmas Day are far removed from the Hawks who kicked them out of the playoffs last season. Eight Atlanta players were in health and safety protocols as of Friday afternoon: Trae Young, Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Kevin Huerter, Sharife Cooper and Wes Iwundu.

"You go into each game and you don't know who you're going to have and you don't know who they're going to have," Thibodeau said. "You try to prepare for all the possibilities. They could be getting these guys back, they could be a different group, so you have to be ready for everyone."

And a lack of stars on opposing teams hardly means an easy time of it. The Knicks' lack of defense helped them fall to a Wizards team playing without Bradley Beal on Thursday. Rookie Corey Kispert, who entered Thursday averaging 3.9 points per game, scored 20 for the Wizards in his first NBA start.

Asked what needs to change, Julius Randle merely said, "A lot."

When pressed, he added, "I could sit here and talk 30 minutes about it. It’s a lot. One thing at a time, we have to have a conscious effort of what we’re trying to do with our identity and stick to our game plan . . . I’m not quite sure what’s caused it. We’re just not executing."

Notes & quotes: Kemba Walker (44 points) scored 18 of the Knicks' 20 points in the last 4:51 of the second quarter and the final 11 Knicks points in the last 3:31 of the third quarter Thursday night against the Wizards. He scored 36 points in the middle two quarters. Walker is averaging 31.3 points and 5.3 assists in the last three games as a starter after not playing a minute in the previous 10 games.

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