With 1:04 left in the second quarter in the New York Knicks‘ preseason opener, Tom Thibodeau pulled out starter Nerlens Noel and inserted back rookie Obi Toppin.
For the first time, Toppin and starting power forward Julius Randle shared the floor. Toppin played as a small-ball center against Detroit’s big man Mason Plumlee while Randle took on Blake Griffin.
Derrick Rose fished a foul from Randle during that brief spurt after the veteran point guard used a Griffin screen to free up from Elfrid Payton.
There was little action on the offensive side involving Randle and Toppin. Thibodeau has yet to decide on his rotation, but he said he wants to see more of that experiment when the Knicks take on the Pistons again on Sunday night.
“We’ll probably mix and match tomorrow. We haven’t decided yet completely how might that be. We want to see different combinations on the floor. It’s really like the first two teams we’re mixing and matching those guys. Who we start with might be different than who finish with. We wanna see, we have a look at Julius and Obi for a short sequence in the first half — experimenting that way is important for us also,” Thibodeau said on a zoom call with reporters on Saturday. “We’ll see. We’ll take it day by day.”
The Knicks’ defensive rating of 112.4 last season ranked 23rd in the league. Last Friday night, Thibodeau was able to stamp his signature defense on the Knicks in just a short amount of time.
The Knicks put forth a defensive effort that wasn’t matched by their jittery offense.
“We know our defense is ahead of our offense right now. We’ve been drilling it non stop since training camp started. Just playing for each other helps a lot,” Randle said.
Noel was in the middle of it all, setting the tone for their defensive juggernaut that did not go for naught.
In his first start as a Knick, Noel had eight rebounds, six on the defensive end, one steal, and two shot blocks on top of his 10 points. Mitchell Robinson followed his lead as the third-year center came up with seven rebounds, four steals, and two blocks.
“It was a great start to build a good foundation. It was a testament to you, practice how you play. I think we had great preparation. The defense might be a little ahead of the offense but that is to be expected. Coach has definitely been working with us to make sure to take defense to a whole new level. Just making sure having that intensity and defensive focus,” Noel said.
Noel is already on his fourth team as an eight-year veteran but has only experienced the playoffs last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He wants to continue winning, and he knows it starts with habit-building, especially on the defensive end.
“We’ve made it a focal point in our practices. Have that defensive intensity from transition defense to talking, high-level communication. It’s gonna be contagious throughout the season to have that as a backbone because as we all know, you can make or miss shots from night to night. You just gotta put the work in all your shots and hope for the best but defense is an effort thing,” Noel said.
Their habits built during their short training camp were enough to sustain them in their first game together.
Players are creatures of habit.
Their active hands have resulted in 12 steals. Their swarming defense forced 22 turnovers, which they parlayed into 24 points, including 11 in transition.
Beginning of an old era
The Knicks won, but Thibodeau left the Little Caesar Arena dissatisfied after the Pistons put up a spirited rally at the end that fell short.
“Like all preseason games, there’s good and bad. We have to look at how we can improve today and tomorrow. So for our first game, we probably played 36, 37 minutes of good basketball, and you’re striving to be a 48-minute team. So there’s a lot of work to be done,” Thibodeau said.
“In every game, that will hold true. It’s important for us to understand that either win or lose, we make the necessary corrections, and we move forward.”
The Knicks of the ’90s have been known for this defensive toughness, and Thibodeau was a big part of that glorious past.
It may still be too early. The Knicks may not win a lot of games this coming season. But the Knicks we’ve been longing to see appears to be coming back.
Welcome back, Knicks basketball!
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