Knicks need to start giving Obi Toppin more minutes

Alec Burks saved the Knicks from an unmitigated disaster in Detroit, because he is a pro’s pro. He has seen it all over 11 years in the NBA, and he could tell his team was prepared to lose to a decimated Pistons club that would have struggled to win a Big Ten game on Wednesday night, never mind a G-League game.

So Burks calmly, stoically, and surgically delivered a career night off the bench with 34 points, 19 in the fourth quarter, to lead the Knicks to a comeback victory that spared them as embarrassing a defeat as they’ve had in a long, long time. Taj Gibson was a huge second-unit help, too, because he has 13 years of NBA experience and he saw where this night was heading as clearly as Burks did.

The Pistons had lost 17 of their previous 18 games, and at 5-27 they were the league’s worst team even before COVID protocol and injury claimed their best players and forced them grab a half dozen guys out of the local Y. And yet they somehow scored 25 of the first 29 points of the third quarter, taking a 14-point lead, before Tom Thibodeau was bailed out by his bench.

Before his Knicks could fly off to Oklahoma City for a chance to get back to .500 for the first time in more than three weeks.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” said Thibodeau, citing the stress of back-to-back road games exacerbated by travel issues and a late arrival in Motown.

But a quick review of the “talent” Detroit put on the floor tells you that no, this never should have been a challenge at all. Remember the Bad Boys Pistons of Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Chuck Daly? These were the Bad News Boys Pistons who played a center, Luka Garza, with a vertical leap that makes Laimbeer’s look Jordanesque, and a 27-year-old G-Leaguer making his NBA debut.

Obi Toppin slams one home during the Knicks' 94-85 victory over the Pistons.
Obi Toppin slams one home during the Knicks’ 94-85 victory over the Pistons.
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So this was not a victory as much as it was a heart-stopping escape. The Knicks’ starting five, which included Quentin Grimes in place of late scratch Evan Fournier, finished with a combined plus/minus of minus-116. The Knicks’ second five, which played the entire fourth quarter, finished with a combined plus/minus of plus-161.

And when it was over, Thibodeau and Gibson made it a point to say that the benched and overmatched starters were enthusiastic in their support of their backups. That’s a good thing, no doubt. You need your players to root for one another during a regular-season grind made more exhausting by a pandemic that just won’t quit.

But 35 games deep into a season that was supposed to be a worthy sequel to last year’s gift from the basketball gods, and that was supposed to represent the next step toward legit contention, it’s clear the Knicks need something to elevate them.

It’s clear they need to cut Obi Toppin loose, and give him a lot more minutes than he’s been getting to date.

Even if those minutes are taken from Julius Randle, the closest thing the Knicks have to a franchise player, and the star they signed over the summer to a four-year, $117 million deal.

Wednesday night, after his 5-for-20 outing against Minnesota, Randle missed 9 of 11 shots and scored five points in 26 minutes. He did contribute 10 rebounds and five assists, but all in all, he hasn’t been nearly the force he was last season, when he single-handedly took the Knicks on their version of a magic carpet ride.

The magic is gone, at least for now. “Jules is still trying to find himself,” Gibson conceded. And that might happen next week, next month, or at least by playoff or play-in time. But if the Knicks want to climb the ladder back into the Eastern Conference’s top six seeds, they need to turn more to the player who climbed the ladder a few minutes into the fourth to dunk home Burks’ lob pass to give his team a lead it never relinquished.

Toppin returned the favor with 1:52 left, refusing to force a shot and instead dishing an underhand pass to the corner to Burks, who put the game out of reach with a four-point play. Toppin’s numbers were modest in 22 minutes (nine points, four rebounds, an assist and a steal), but he played valuable defense, provided nonstop energy, and posted a plus-36 to Randle’s minus-27.

Once upon a time, when Thibodeau was an assistant on the ’99 Knicks, Jeff Van Gundy waited too long on another long and athletic riser, Marcus Camby. Thibs and Van Gundy are very good coaches, but hey, it happens to the best of them.

Toppin has his flaws for sure, yet his pros far outweigh his cons. He needs to start playing 25-plus minutes every night, even if that means more pine time for Randle.

If the Knicks are to grow into a serious playoff contender, they’ll need a lift. And Obi Toppin lifts off like no other New Yorker.