The Knicks’ injury report for Friday’s preseason finale was so extensive that it took Tom Thibodeau three tries to get through it and even then he had missed one of the eight names who were unavailable. And in that long list of injuries and excused absences came a glimmer of hope for fans.
The missing players gave the Knicks coach an opening to insert rookie Immanuel Quickley into the starting lineup and for a night, it felt like rebuilding plans shifted for the team.
There are more than a few disclaimers. It was the last preseason game. It was the Cavaliers who are facing odds just as long as the Knicks’ to contend for a title and on top of that a shorthanded group with their own list of contributors sitting this one out. But Quickley started off, well, quickly, with 11 of his team-high 22 points in the first quarter as the Knicks led by as many as 23, and he continued to lead them as the lead ballooned to as many as 49 in the second half in a 119-83 win.
Asked if Quickley had put himself in the running for a starting job, Thibodeau said: "If he keeps doing it; we base all that on performance. So if he keeps doing it in practice and he’s carrying it over to the games, he’s earning his way. And so we’ll see how it unfolds.
"You could say that about every player on the roster. But he’s done a really good job and when he’s been on the floor, the team has functioned extremely well. We’ll talk about it as a staff. He got our attention in practice. If you practice well, you usually play well."
"It’s great, just to get my feet wet a little bit," said Quickley, who had five steals and five assists. "The coaches trust me and I feel like I produced but it’s just the start. I want to continue to get better. I’ll be right back in the gym with film tomorrow and then right back in the gym getting up shots. I also have great vets around me. they help me and lead me and I’m just trying to soak up all the information and get better."
Kevin Knox added 20 points, hitting 6-for-7 from three-point range.
The game was out of reach almost immediately but there was little question Thibodeau took nothing for granted. When a six-point spurt by Cleveland in the first two minutes of the second half cut the Knicks’ lead to 31, the hard-driving coach’s eyes told the story.
He called another timeout up 44. In the fourth quarter when the Cavs hit consecutive three-pointers to pull within 39, he called another. That is what the youthful Knicks and their fans can expect.
If this blowout was going to stoke the hype for the young Knicks who helped the team to a 3-1 preseason record, Thibodeau certainly wasn’t going to be leading the cheers.
When NBA.com surveyed the league’s general managers for the annual GM survey, the Knicks were mostly an afterthought, left out of the conversation for contending teams or for most of the postseason honors. But there was one player who has gotten an early hint of respect around the league and has shown in preseason that the talk might be accurate.
Obi Toppin, who had six points, six rebounds and four assists Friday night, was picked third in the poll ranking potential rookie of the year candidates, tied for third among choices as the biggest steal according to his draft position and also received votes for which rookie will be the best player five years from now.
"Yeah, and again, like those polls and predictions, they’re pretty much meaningless," Thibodeau said before Friday’s preseason finale at Madison Square Garden against the Cleveland Cavaliers. "I just want him to continue to approach it the way he has; come in every day, work as hard as you can, try to improve each and every day. Often times, it’s small incremental steps that a player takes and that’s the way I want him to approach it. Then he looks back and sees he’s made a quantum leap."
With Toppin and Quickley playing so well, expectations will rise from a fan base hungry for the future to arrive now. The two had teamed up Wednesday night with Mitchell Robinson, Barrett and Knox to help lead a 100-93 victory over these same Cavs, playing the last seven minutes together and outscoring Cleveland 21-7.
"Just continue to do what he’s been doing," Thibodeau said of Quickley before Friday’s game. "I’ve loved his approach from the moment we drafted him. He’s a great worker, he’s a smart kid. A terrific shooter. We still haven’t seen him do what he does best, which is shoot the ball. Just a confident guy. Many people thought he couldn’t play on the ball and he’s shown that he’s very confident with the ball. And that’s the way he grew up. He played point growing up. He didn’t play the point that much in Kentucky but they played a three-guard system.
"The challenge will be great every night. I think missing Summer League and fall practices and all that. But he’s responded very well. He prepares himself well. He’s a student of the game. He’s been terrific."
Notes & quotes: In the GM survey, Thibodeau was tied for fifth as "coach who will make biggest impact on new team" and also receiving votes as "best manager of players/motivator."