The Knicks embarked on a new era Friday night in Detroit after nine months off, guided by a new head coach in Tom Thibodeau.
But one newcomer on the court burdened by the expectations of the long-struggling franchise was Obi Toppin, the latest lottery pick to be tasked with trying to raise the level of the Knicks. And in his first appearance with the team Friday, he came off the bench to face the Pistons in Detroit.
It was just a preseason game, the team's first, a 90-84 Knicks win. And if the Knicks showed their talent level and experience is not anywhere near the top teams, the effect of Thibodeau was felt. The Knicks played hard, and when they didn’t, they heard the wrath in Thibodeau's voice, its message sent the same way as any of his best playoff rants, seasoned by his unique gravelly whisper.
In the third quarter when Julius Randle committed a sloppy turnover and the team failed to get back in the proper spots on defense, Thibodeau called a timeout and ripped into his players. By the end of the third quarter, Thibodeau’s face mask was stripped off and the lip-reading wasn’t safe for children.
And Toppin was, as hyped, athletic, energetic and the sort of exciting player who will help drag fans along through this rebuild. He finished with 11 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes.
"I wouldn’t say it hit me but it was kind of a shock," Toppin said of his first moments. "As soon as coach called my name and told me go to the scorer’s table, I was like, ‘oh it’s my time’. When I got in, I had all my other guys with me so I wasn’t really nervous or scared. Just because I knew everybody else was going to pick me up. So I just went out there and did what I did best and that was play basketball."
If he was nervous it didn’t seem to show. The Knicks started Randle, Nerlens Noel and RJ Barrett up front with Alec Burks and Elfrid Payton in the backcourt. Toppin entered the game with 3:56 remaining in the first quarter and by the time the period was done he had six points and three rebounds, showing hustle and the expected athleticism.
He had highlights — a pretty pass to Kevin Knox on the corner on a break that came back to him for a dunk. And there were lowlights — being isolated defensively against Blake Griffin, falling for a pump fake and fouling as Griffin slipped past him for a layup.
"For the first one, I think I grabbed the rebound on the other side and then drove right," Toppin said. "I saw Blake down there so I was going to dunk it but I saw Kev open in the corner, made the extra pass for an open shot. But he drove it and I was in the dunker waiting for him to pass. I got that dunk. Blake’s shot, it was my first time playing against Blake so I was learning as the game went on. He has a slow, slow pump fake. I’m not going to lie, I jumped. Everybody, especially Jules [Julius Randle], he told me, as soon as I came to the timeout, he was like, ‘That’s what he does every time.’ I knew for the next times I was guarding him not to jump on that pump fake."
Nothing is quite normal for this start to the season. There were no fans allowed into Little Caesars Arena. The Knicks could not conduct a normal morning shootaround at the arena, instead using a ballroom at the team hotel for the workout.
"Obviously, the first time through with what everyone’s going through, whether you’re a coach, player, trainer, person who is doing to the testing, there’s an adjustment to going through it," Thibodeau said. "We felt that as we mentioned to the team, you have to be good in all areas. So you have to be good at shootaround at an arena, you have to be good at a shootaround at a ballroom, and we have to be ready to adapt quickly. And we wanted to get a feel for that so that’s what we did today."
Notes & quotes: Austin Rivers (groin injury) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (illness) were unavailable . . . Barrett led the Knicks with 15 points, shooting 7-for-16 after missing his first six shots.