Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals certainly didn’t go the way the New York Knicks hoped, but it wasn’t due to the efforts of Obi Toppin.
The third-year forward made his first career playoff start, taking the spot of All-Star Julus Randle, who’s out with a left ankle sprain. Toppin played 31 minutes, scoring 18 points on 7-of-15 from the field, while adding eight rebounds, and one steal and not committing a single turnover.
Perhaps more glaringly, Toppin was the only Knicks player to make multiple three-point shots on Sunday afternoon. He shot 4-of-11 from downtown and actually made four of the team’s seven total three-point shots.
“I felt good,” said Toppin after the game. “I always feel good when I’m out there on the floor.”
That’s a fact that has borne out over his play. Despite Toppin averaging just 15.7 minutes per game this season, and never averaging over 17 minutes per game in his Knicks career, he has repeatedly stepped up when called upon. This wasn’t the first time during the 2023 season that the Knicks needed the former 8th-overall pick from the 2020 NBA Draft.
After Randle sprained his ankle in a March 29th win over these same Miami Heat, it was Toppin that stepped into a bigger role. He played 34.8 minutes per game in April, scoring 24.3 points per game with 3.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists, while shooting 56.9% from the field and 41.2% from beyond the arc.
While many players struggle not knowing if they’re going to get an opportunity or not, Toppin seems innately capable of rising to the occasion.
“It was always a thought,” he said when asked about whether or not he knew he would start. “We didn’t know how [Randle] was feeling. In my head, I thought I was starting the whole time. The approach that I take going into every game is the same.”
Perhaps it’s that consistent mentality that allows Toppin to perform regardless of the situation. There aren’t many situations more pressure-packed than the NBA Playoffs in front of a lively Madison Square Garden crowd with Knicks icons like Patrick Ewing, Allen Houston, and Bernard King in attendance. Yet, none of that phased Toppin.
“I thought he played well,” said head coach Tom Thibodeau after the game. “Very well.”
However, despite Toppin’s strong minutes, he found himself on the bench for much of the fourth quarter. He was subbed out with 9:36 left in the game and the Knicks trailing 87-80, and he never came back into the game.
“Just matching up the way they were,” explained Thibodeau after the game, likely referring to the Heat keeping center Bam Adebayo on the floor to finish the game, along with multiple wings like Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, and Gabe Vincent.
As RJ Barrett said after the game, the Knicks have a “next man up mentality.” It’s a mentality that Obi Toppin has taken to in a way few others can. While the team hopes that Randle is healthy for Game 2, they know that Toppin will be ready if his teammates need him again.