When Obi Toppin finished his night Friday by dunking a lob from Immanuel Quickley to give him a career-high 35 points, nearly doubling his previous best, it was one more opportunity for the huge contingent of fans who had been chanting his name all night to serenade him. But the “O-bi Top-pin” chants from the crowd at Capital One Arena were not as important as the praise that came from one voice afterward.
For two seasons, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has answered most questions about the athletic forward with praise but quickly pointed out the things that still needed to come for the former lottery pick. A windmill dunk that brought the fans out of their seats? Fine, but be in the right place on defense the next time downcourt.
But after the 81st game of the season and the fourth straight start for Toppin, Thibodeau could not help but smile when he was asked about the crowd reaction.
“He’s a great guy,” he said. “He's a very positive, upbeat, high-energy guy. Everyone loves Obi. We always kid, we were all worried when he got sick, and no one gives out more dabs than Obi.
“Every day, the thing that you love about him is he walks in the gym and he’s got energy. He walks onto the bus; he’s got energy. Your team can feed off that. He reminds me in some ways, not in the way they play but in the way they bounce in their attitude, [of] Taj [Gibson]. That was a young Taj. In the middle of winter, he’ll come in the gym, and that’s what you’d feel from Obi when he walks in the building. You’re like, OK, Obi’s here. You feel it.”
In a disappointing season that will end Sunday night with the Knicks falling short of the playoffs and far below .500 after last season’s fourth-seeded finish, the most complaints from the fans has been centered around the lack of playing time for Toppin while Julius Randle has endured a season far off the pace of last season. With Randle shut down for the season because of a quadriceps injury, in four starts heading to the finish, Toppin has scored 20, 20, 19 and 35 points, shooting 33-for-61 overall and 13-for-27 from three-point range.
In the eyes of Toppin's fans, the blame has fallen on Thibodeau, but Toppin has spent much of the season praising the coaching staff. And here’s the thing — the player the fans have seen in the last four games is not the same player Toppin was earlier in the season, and if he deserves the credit, so do the coaches.
Before the Knicks even begin practice sessions, Thibodeau gathers the team’s three rookies and two second-year players for what the team calls “early group” and runs through instructions to ready them for the opportunities to come.
“We just go over our plays,” Toppin said. “It's mainly for us to be great with our plays and know what we're doing when we get in the game. When we're playing together, all the young guys on the court together, it's easy because it's every single day before practice.”
“Honestly, it’s a good opportunity for all of us to work together,” Thibodeau said. “So you get a chance to see what each player is really good at. They get comfortable with each other and you know over the course of a long season everyone is going to get the opportunity to play. And so the challenge is to make sure everyone is ready when they get that opportunity.
“We saw stretches last year from [Quickley] and Obi, so we knew where they were, but our young guys right from the fall all the way through training camp, the way they practice — and that’s really the first step: to practice well. So you gain the trust of your teammates, but we saw how competitive they were and what they did. But I think they all benefit from [it]. You can see how they have great chemistry with each other. The ball hops around. They move without the ball. They know how to play off each other, and I think that's a byproduct of spending a lot of time with each other. They’re all great workers. Our young guys are off the charts in terms of work.”
There has been a change, too, in approach. Toppin said Thibodeau coaches him to think “shoot” first when he gets the ball. As a rookie last season, his default move was to look to the bench for a quick hook after any mistake. He said, “I still look at the bench. I’m not going to lie.” But he added that he is more at ease.
There still is a roadblock to his future in the form of Randle, who despite the criticism from the fans is a necessary part of the team. They play the same position, and Thibodeau’s efforts to put them on the floor together have not been a rousing success because the defense has suffered.
Asked if he thinks he and Randle could be this decade’s version of Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley, Toppin said, “That’s crazy.” And it is — that 1990s version of the Knicks featured a pair of elite defensive players. But Toppin does think there is a place for him and Randle together on the floor.
“Me and Jules actually talked about it,” Toppin said. “We definitely feel in today’s game that’s a big thing, just because a lot of teams are playing small. [A] lot of teams want to play fast, shoot threes, run the floor and just get out in transition. And I feel like when me and Jules are on the court, we’re definitely playing a lot faster. Either me or Jules can be in the paint or we can screen, roll. There are so many different things we can do when we’re on the court. We’ve definitely talked about it and hopefully we’re both back here next year and we can see that stuff.”
The real combination for Toppin is with his fellow second-year player, Quickley. If it is off the bench, then so be it, but there is chemistry among the pair that has come from the long hours off the court together, working with the coaching staff and spending the offseason in the gym and even with each other’s family.
“It’s great. Christmas, I went to his house. Had Christmas with his family,” Quickley said. “Super Bowl, watched it with his family. So same thing for me. If I’m not with my people, I’m pretty much with him. And then on the court, we can hold each other accountable. I can say, 'C’mon bruh, let’s get going,' or he can tell me the same thing and there’s no attitude or things like that. So it’s great. It’s great to have a brother like that on the floor.
“We see something in a game; I know when I get the ball, I’m already looking, because I know he’s sprinting and if I miss him, he’ll look at me on the bench like [makes a face], and then I’ll be like, I got you.”
The Knicks expect to provide an update Sunday on the right knee sprain RJ Barrett suffered Friday night. He was examined by team doctors Saturday in New York. Thibodeau already has said that even with a good report, there is no chance that he will play in the season finale. He wound up averaging 20.03 points per game.