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Knicks fans want to see more of Obi Toppin, but fit is a problem

Obi Toppin of the Knicks attempts a shot

Obi Toppin of the Knicks attempts a shot against the Bucks at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

While the Knicks have searched for a way to jump-start the starting lineup there is one answer for an energy infusion that would jolt the crowd and has proven to be successful this season.

But it won’t happen.

The crowd regularly chants for Obi Toppin to enter the game, roar at his every athletic move on either end of the floor and hold their collective breath as he takes off, outracing guards as he seeks an outlet pass for another highlight-reel dunk.

But Toppin also plays the same position as the Knicks most productive player, Julius Randle. And even if Randle has not quite played up to the level he set last season when he earned second-team All-NBA honors and was voted the NBA’s Most Improved player, he still leads the Knicks in scoring and rebounding.

Coach Tom Thibodeau has used a small-ball lineup sparingly in which he plays Randle and Toppin together - they have managed 31 minutes on the floor together this season entering Monday’s game against Indiana. Figuring out how to get Toppin in the game while still relying on Randle is a puzzle that Thibodeau has yet to solve - and doesn’t actually sound nearly as interested as the fans in finding the answer.

Randle is averaging a team-high 35.7 minutes per game - on course for the numbers he put up last season when he led the NBA in minutes played per game. Toppin is averaging just 14.8 minutes and his game is not without its flaws. He is still learning to play defense to the liking of Thibodeau and even offensively, he has connected on just 2 of 17 shots from beyond the arc.

Still, when accounting for numbers on a per-36-minutes basis, Toppin would be the Knicks third-leading scorer behind Randle and Derrick Rose.

"It’s all based on performance," Thibodeau said. "It’s not an individual thing. It’s a team thing. It’s how the team is functioning and there has to be a balance to offense and defense. That factors into it as well."

But the performance of the starting unit has been a problem for the Knicks as the grouping of Randle, RJ Barrett, Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier along with Mitchell Robinson have yet to jell. It’s not just the unfamiliarity or the drop in defensive ability of the newcomers, but there has been an admitted lack of energy at times.

When Toppin takes the floor with the second unit that has not been an issue. Rose has spearheaded the second unit, but Toppin and Immanuel Quickley provide a youthful exuberance that electrifies the crowd and often the team. In the last two games the bench has carried the team and seen the starters let them down.

Thibodeau said that Toppin has improved on the defensive end, which was lacking last season. He is tied with Robinson and Nerlens Noel at 2.1 blocked shots per 36 minutes, behind only Taj Gibson, who is averaging 2.3.

After joining the Knicks last season as the first lottery pick of the current front office regime, Toppin started slowly despite his age — 22 at the time of the draft, as compared to so many lottery picks who enter the league at 19. But he improved throughout the season and was a regular contributor in the playoff loss to Atlanta.

"He’s done a good job," Thibodeau said. "He’s getting better. The rebounding is still something that he’s locked into a lot better. So he’s improved in that area as well. He’s gotten a lot better in terms of understanding schemes so just keep working at it."

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