GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Obi Toppin wasn’t just the first big man off the bench for the Knicks in their 106-100 victory over the Lakers on Tuesday at the Garden. He was the only big man off the bench.
With Mitchell Robinson and Taj Gibson unavailable because of injuries, coach Tom Thibodeau used Toppin for 21:39. That meant the second-year forward had to be on the floor at the same time as Julius Randle for stretches of the game.
Knicks fans have been clamoring for Randle and Toppin to play together. Thibodeau has been reluctant — and he still sounds a little hesitant because of what it does to the defense — but as Toppin improves, the chances of seeing him playing next to Randle increase.
"There's some real positives to it," Thibodeau said on Wednesday after practice. "I feel last year, obviously, wasn’t as good because I don't think Obi was the player that he is today. That's a good sign. In some ways, we're a lot better offensively [when they play together]. And then in some ways, we lose some of the rim protection. But I think Obi’s been growing on defense as well."
The duo could see significant time on the floor together on Friday when the Knicks host the Suns. Robinson is still in the concussion protocol and Gibson is day-to-day with a groin injury.
Thibodeau said Derrick Rose, who missed the Lakers game with an ankle injury, is also day-to-day. The Knicks visit Atlanta on Saturday, so their depth will be tested in the back-to-backs against a pair of top opponents.
That’s where Toppin comes in. Still as much of an energy player as when he was a rookie, Toppin has added some maturity to his game.
"I feel like I know my role better now," he said. "I know when I'm on the court, I know what I’ve got to do. Whether I'm in at the four or the five, either playing with Jules or not playing with Jules, I know what I have to do when I'm on the floor at any time."
Would Toppin like to keep playing with Randle? Well, since Randle is among the league leaders in minutes, Toppin has to play with Randle if he wants to play more.
"I feel like with me and Jules on the court, it works really well," he said. "But Tibbs is Tibbs. He's a great coach and he knows when to put us on the court at the same time. So whenever I'm on the court with him, I know what I’ve got to do."
On Tuesday, Toppin contributed 12 points, four rebounds and, along with Immanuel Quickley, a heaping helping of energy.
"Me and Quick talk a lot," Toppin said. "I feel like we both know when we’re in the game, we’re young, we’ve got young legs. Just go in there, have fun and bring a lot of energy to the team. Every time we’re about to sub in, we look at each other and we're like, ‘Let's do this. Let's go in here and bring this energy.’ "