BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo credit: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Facing what appeared to be a lost cause, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau decided to play Obi Toppin with 2:52 to go in the third quarter of the Knicks’ 106-104 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers that missed Joel Embiid and James Harden on Friday night at Wells Fargo Center. The Knicks trailed 74-72 at the time, and he was desperate for a spark that would get them going. They were not shooting well, and they were not defending at all.
Toppin’s fourth-quarter dunk engineered a 19-5 run that gave the Knicks a 100-96 lead with 1:05 to go. From there, the Knicks did not look back and held on to win with effective defense in the end.
It was the best coaching move Thibodeau has made in a while, and he might as well got lucky on this one as he was guessing here. If he knew Toppin would be this effective, he would have played him even earlier or even started him.
Nine games in, and it seems like Thibodeau is finding the right mix to get his team going. He used an 11-man rotation for Friday night’s game. He even paired Julius Randle and Toppin together during the game, even though he went small to start the game by using RJ Barrett at forward and started Quentin Grimes against the 76ers.
It’s never a good sign to start searching, even if it’s nine games in. This roster has been around for now. At some point, Thibodeau has to know what makes the lineup click and who to trust.
It’s hard to tell if he knows. He is so stuck in his rigid ways. He trusts the veterans a lot more. He will play Julius Randle and Derrick Rose a lot since he knows he will get results out of them, even though it has been few and far between. He will not play Toppin that much, and he will never start him no matter how good the third-year player does. He is bent on giving limited minutes to Immanuel Quickley and Grimes.
His lineups lack logic most of the time. This may be why the offense has not been great so far. When Randle gets the ball and shoots his team out of a possession, it is on Thibodeau for playing him and giving him minutes he really does not deserve anymore.
Thibodeau should be giving Toppin more minutes. It shouldn’t take desperation for him to play his young player. Toppin brings so much energy when he is out there. His energy and athleticism add another dimension to this Knicks offense. He also can shoot the 3, which is important in today’s NBA. He has the goods to play in the NBA.
It was interesting why he did not play Toppin in the second half of the Knicks’ 112-99 loss to the Hawks on Wednesday night. It explained why the Knicks blew a 24-point lead, and why the Knicks came off so flat to start the second half. For whatever reason, the Knicks head coach seems bent on playing Toppin only for limited minutes. How he is ever going to develop into a starter if he is being jerked around like that?
Thibodeau doesn’t seem to run an offense around Quickley and Grimes. He is so bent on putting Evan Fournier in the lineup. It was about time he put Grimes in the starting lineup Friday night rather than Fournier. How long will last is another story. Fournier is one of Thibodeau’s guys, so he will eventually find himself in the lineup and get starting minutes.
How come Isiah Hartenstein does not get many minutes after getting off to a good start this season?
It seems Thibodeau’s mistakes are self-inflicted in the sense he goes with his guys rather than try something new. This has been a problem during his coaching career everywhere he goes. It probably explains why he has been fired as the Bulls head coach and Timberwolves head coach. He was in danger of losing his job last year until he gave Toppin, Grimes and Quickley more minutes when the season was all but over.
Now, he has resorted to not playing the young guys who can help him win.
If that isn’t enough, his teams don’t play defense. They can’t defend the 3-point line. Teams seem to EZ-pass their way to the lane and score. The team has often come out looking flat.
It was interesting when Thibodeau called a timeout midway through the second quarter of the Knicks’ game against the Hawks, and no one seemed to pay attention to what he was talking about. One has to wonder if he lost his players. He can be grating after a while. This seems to be the case now.
Thibodeau needed a great start to the season just so there wouldn’t be questions about him to start the season. Instead, he raised more questions than answers with some of his coaching decisions and the team’s play.
Look, the talent isn’t really that good, but the coach is not helping matters by not playing guys like Toppin and Grimes a lot.
There is still time for him to figure it out.
Thibodeau is his own worst enemy, along with the Knicks, since he is likely stuck in his own ways.
This writer can be reached on Twitter: @LeslieMonteiro6