There was the early speed. That was enough to get an awful lot of eyeballs on Obi Toppin. Opening night it was 14 points, five rebounds, 6-for-9 shooting and a string of electric plays. He followed that up in Game 2, in Orlando, with 13 points, and the large pocket of Knicks fans at Amway Arena responded to that, too.
It is has slowed from there for Toppin, the Knicks’ second-year forward. His minutes have dwindled again, and he is again mostly serving as a strict backup for Julius Randle. The average of around 26 minutes those first two games has become an even 12.0 the last five. The numbers have shrunk accordingly.
It ain’t easy being a junior member of Thibs’ Army.
“I don’t feel pressure at all because it’s basketball,” Toppin said Wednesday morning, a few hours before the Knicks would tip it up with the Pacers at Indianapolis’ Gainbridge Fieldhouse. “I just know what I have to do when I go out there. Either it’s going to go really good — which I hope is every day — but I don’t feel pressure. I just go out and have fun and play my role.”
Defining that role is the key. Toppin is still a streaky player, and still very much of an athletic freak, and it is taking time for Tom Thibodeau to figure out how to best employ those skills. It is telling that both of the Knicks’ losses so far this year entering play Wednesday — against the Magic and the Raptors, both at home — came at the hands of teams who couldn’t match up well with the Knicks in terms of basketball skill but had a clear advantage in young legs and athleticism.
In the five games since Toppin’s splendid two-game opening to the season, he has yet to return to double figures in scoring, turning in nights of 2, 9, 5, 1 and 6 points. He is still shooting 50 percent in those games, still blocking a shot per game, still grabbing 2 ½ rebounds. He just hasn’t seen the floor as often.
Those opportunities will come, you would think, since the Knicks’ backup-center tandem of Taj Gibson and Nerlens Noel have struggled to stay completely healthy. On nights when both of them are healthy, Toppin will again get his shot to play alongside Randle instead of simply serving as his caddy.
Whatever Thibodeau is looking for — and the coach has never come close to criticizing Toppin, he simply hasn’t shown a true and full confidence in him yet — he has to show during those opportunities.
“I feel like the key is knowing what I have to do when I’m on the court with those guys,” Toppin said. “Whether I’m on the court with Jules or on the court with Taj, or Mitch. I know I’m out there bringing energy out on the court, running the floor, doing little things that will help the team win.
“We definitely have to rebound a lot better when it’s me and Jules out there. Rim-protect a lot better. But I’ve got to do whatever I can do stay on the court and help the team win.”
One thing hasn’t changed: the fans at Madison Square Garden still enjoy what he brings to the floor, regardless of how small those bites might be right now. They still chant his name — “It’s an easy chant, for real,” Toppin said — and he feeds off that love.
“I don’t know but it brings chills to me every time they do that,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
He’ll feel even better when he settles into a nightly role where he’s regularly making contributions that honor what he showed he could do in the season’s first week.
“Everyone isn’t perfect,” Toppin said. “Everyone isn’t going to have a great night every single day, but what we can do is make the best of it every time we’re on the court, get better and do what we do best — play basketball.”
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