Tom Thibodeau explains Obi Toppin benching during Knicks’ 4th qtr meltdown

Former New York Knicks lottery pick Obi Toppin had a rare start on Tuesday night in a crucial game against their rival Atlanta Hawks in place of Julius Randle, who sat out with sore right quadriceps.

Toppin made the most out of the opportunity and produced 10 points on 5 of 7 shooting while adding seven rebounds, three assists, and one steal in 24 minutes, the most he’s played since a career-high 45 minutes back on January 2 when the team was decimated by COVID-19.

“It felt good. I had to find my rhythm because I haven’t played a lot with these guys (starting group),” Toppin said. “When I was out there, I was just playing basketball how I play basketball.”

Despite his productive minutes, Toppin didn’t get the chance to close out the game in the fourth quarter after getting hit with his fifth foul in the final 2:42 of the third quarter. Veteran Taj Gibson took over his spot and played the rest of the game, much to the chagrin of a quarter of the Knicks fan base on social media.

The reigning NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau explained his unpopular decision afterward.

“It was really the way the game was flowing,” Thibodeau said. “That group that started the fourth had a pretty good run going, and then with Taj — it’s his experience, his defense, and also the matchup with (Danilo) Gallinari is something you’re concerned about.”

“So those were the reasons and obviously the five fouls. We got to that point with five minutes to go where you got to [decide] who we are closing with, and I went with the group that was in there. That was basically it, but you know what, I wouldn’t hesitate to put him in that situation either.”

With Toppin on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, the Knicks built a 10-point lead but blew it in a deflating 117-111 loss to the Hawks with Trae Young erupting for a Garden career-high 45 points, including the dagger over Gibson with 1:04 left.

The loss put the Knicks six games behind their tormentor with 10 games remaining. They have to go at least 7-3 in their final 10 games and hope the Hawks will end the regular season on a 10-game losing streak. In short, the Knicks need a miracle.

Thibodeau isn’t ready to raise the white flag yet.

“Well, the position we’re in, they’re all must-have games. So, that’s it. But you’re not eliminated until you’re eliminated,” Thibodeau said. “So, keep fighting.”

Will that mean Thibodeau will still play a veteran over a young player down the stretch?

To be fair to the veteran coach, his closing lineup against the Hawks was composed of three players under 23 (23-year old Mitchell Robinson, 22-year old Immanuel Quickley, and 21-year old RJ Barrett) flanked by two veterans (30-year old Alec Burks and 36-year old Gibson).

“The thing is, we’re shorthanded. It’s not only Julius (Randle), but it’s Derrick (Rose), Nerlens (Noel). But it also gives other guys an opportunity,” Thibodeau said. “And so I thought we got some production from a lot of guys.”

“I thought they played well. We just didn’t finish the game, and that’s the biggest thing. Sometimes, the only way to get experience is to get experience. So, it’s a good opportunity for those guys to be out there. But we got to finish better.”

Unfortunately for Toppin, he didn’t get that much-needed crunch time experience.

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