Knicks forward Obi Toppin dunks during the second half of...

Knicks forward Obi Toppin dunks during the second half of the team's NBA game against the Hornets on Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C. Credit: AP

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.

Randle sat out for a second straight night and Toppin, given the chance, provided a much-needed burst of energy to the Knicks, helping them to a 121-106 win over the Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center. The victory did little for their dwindling hopes, bringing them back to within five games of Atlanta for the final play-in spot in the East with nine games to play. But it provided a glimpse at least of what the Knicks could do with a youth-led lineup with the wire-to-wirs win.

“I thought it was one of our best games of the year, in a lot of different areas,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “So it was a challenge obviously, back to back, guys out, I thought the unselfishness to start the game got us into a really good rhythm and then everyone was making the extra pass.”

As the Knicks season winds down there has been more of an outcry to transition to youth for the remainder of the season. It hasn’t just been for Toppin, but also for rookies Quentin Grimes, Jericho Sims and Miles McBride. Those three 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 Wednesday night against the Hornets with Randle sidelined again with a sore quadriceps tendon and more front court time opened  with Mitchell Robinson 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.

“Yeah, I felt good today,” Toppin said. “We knew we just came off that loss against Atlanta, knew we needed to bounce back and bring a lot of energy into this game, a lot of positivity and just have fun and play our game. I felt like we all did that today.”

Against the Hornets he played 39 minutes, delivering 18 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. It was 21-year-old RJ Barrett who led the Knicks with 30 points. But Toppin started this game by hitting his first four shots, including one from beyond the arc, in the first nine minutes as the Knicks built leads of 20 points in the first half before settling for a 69-56 lead at the break. After those four shots he had an open look at a three-pointer, but passed instead to Immanuel Quickley, who buried a three. His coach had a message for him.

“Yeah, he wanted me to shoot that one,” Toppin said. “But something told me to pass it. I don’t know.”

The Knicks saw the lead whittled with Charlotte running off a flurry of dunks and three-point field goals. The Knicks appeared to have a fast break working as Toppin took off while Evan Fournier scrambled for a loose ball. But it was picked up by Charlotte’s P.J. Washington and he fired it to LaMelo Ball in the corner for a three-pointer that closed the gap to 92-86 with 2:18 left in the third quarter.. But Fournier buried a three — setting a franchise record with 218 this season — and the Knicks managed to survive the quarter with a 99-87 lead. Fournier passed John Starks' mark from the 1994-95 season.

Fournier received a video message from Starks that was shown to him after the game. “I have a lot of emotions. I’m proud, happy. I’m thankful for all the assists I got from my teammates. Guys putting me in the situation to break the record," Fournier said. "The fact it’s such a big, historical franchise, take the record from John Starks, famous guy, famous player, it’s hard to put words on exactly how I feel but I’m going to be on calls with friends and parents. It’s going to be a great night.”

Toppin sat out the entire fourth quarter Tuesday as Thibodeau turned to veteran Taj Gibson. Toppin came out after his fifth foul with 2:42 left in the third quarter and never returned. This time,Toppin ran it to the final buzzer, delivering a pair of late dunks as the Knicks protected the lead.

“He made a number of good plays,” Thibodeau said. “Running the floor, moving it side to side. Shot when he was open, drove it, made the extra pass. He had a great floor game and I think that helped us a ton.”


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months