Obi Toppin, Knicks hope to get good vibes flowing against Heat under fire

The New York Knicks are coming off one of their best games in a challenging season, with Obi Toppin inspiring them to a blazin’ start in Charlotte Wednesday. They hope to build on that momentum when they face the struggling Heat team in turmoil Friday night at FTX Arena in Miami.

“It’s one of our best games of the year in a lot of different areas,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau raved about after the Knicks’ 121-106 rout of the Hornets, who saw their five-game winning streak got snapped. “I thought the unselfishness to start the game got us into a really good rhythm. And then everyone was making the extra pass.”

Toppin, starting for the second straight game for Julius Randle (sore right quadriceps), led a strong start as he sank his first four shots. The Knicks beat the Hornets in their own game playing with pace and space. Their ball movement caught the Hornets flat-footed.

“[Wednesday night] we just played well from start to finish. It was beautiful. It was an amazing basketball. It was fun to be part of,” said RJ Barrett, who led the Knicks with his second straight 30-point game.

“It was fun playing that way — being out there, playing with a lot of joy, and sharing the basketball,” Toppin added.

The Knicks had 30 assists, 19 in the first half, where they led by as many as 20. They hit 20 three-pointers led by Evan Fournier’s four. His last one — 218th triple — shattered John Stark’s 27-year old franchise record for most three-pointers in a single season.

“We have a number of guys who can get into the paint, and when we get to the paint and spray [out], we have a number of guys who can shoot it as well,” Barrett said. “So when we get in there and just trust each other, just make the right plays, myself included, and hitting the open guys, that’s tough to guard.”

Can they sustain that against the Heat in Miami, where they haven’t won since 2017?

They have a golden opportunity as the Heat struggle to incorporate Victor Oladipo and Markieff Morris into an already loaded roster. They’ve lost two straight against a Philadelphia 76ers team missing Joel Embiid and James Harden and the Golden State Warriors without their star trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.

Frustrations boiled over in a third-quarter huddle where Udonis Haslem, Jimmy Butler, and Miami coach Erik Spoelstra shouted at each other in an ugly, heated scene.

Spoelstra brushed that heated scene off and joked they were just wondering where the dinner plans were after the game. But jokes aside, it’s a big test for the Eastern Conference’s top seed with the playoffs just a few weeks away.

“You can use moments during a season to catapult you,” Spoelstra said. “You can galvanize together over frustration and disappointment. Teams can also go the other way. I don’t see that with our group. I don’t see that with our locker room. But we have needed a kick in the butt from these two games.”

The Knicks should brace for a big bounce back from the Heat.

At 31-42 and still five games outside the play-in tournament, the Knicks are just playing for next season. But don’t tell that to Toppin, who had a splendid game, finishing with 19 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists in 40 minutes.

“Our season isn’t over. I feel like we still have a chance to get into the play-in, and that’s what we’re riding with. We know we still have a chance, so we’re going to fight every single day like dogs and hopefully get a chance to play in the play-in games.

Thibodeau liked what he saw from his sophomore forward, the eighth overall pick in 2020, after he benched Toppin, saddled with five fouls, for the entire fourth quarter against Atlanta at home Tuesday night.

“He made a number of good plays like running the floor, moving it side to side. He shot when he was open, drove it, made the extra pass. He had a great floor game. And I think that helped us a ton,” said Thibodeau, praising Toppin for his solid bounce-back game against the Hornets.

Barrett, who is growing into a leader on his third season in the league, saw a confident Toppin in recent games.

“He had a phenomenal game and huge plays down the stretch as well. So, I’m just happy to see him out there getting his opportunity and capitalizing on it,” Barrett said. “He’s live wire, man. He’s so athletic, and he can shoot the ball and get the rebound and push and make plays, make decisions. I’m just happy seeing him getting more comfortable in his own skin recently.”

Randle and Mitchell Robinson, who both rested during Knicks’ Wednesday night win — their sixth in their last 10 games, are a game-time decision against the Heat.

Thibodeau has a big-picture decision to make.

“The important thing for us is to play winning basketball. Play the right way. Play hard. Play unselfishly. Play together,” Thibodeau said. “You can deal with the missed shot if it’s the right shot. We made a number of plays that a guy passed up a good shot, and we ended up getting a better shot. And that’s winning basketball, and we want to continue to play that way.”

Can they sustain that with Randle’s impending return?

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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