Toppin, Knicks impressive in Thibodeau’s coaching return

Tom Thibodeau triumphantly returned to coaching while rookie Obi Toppin was electrifying in New York Knicks’ 90-84 preseason win against the Pistons Friday night at the Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit.

It didn’t look and feel like a preseason with Thibodeau coaching the Knicks hard in his first game back after nearly two years away from the game. Unveiling a suffocating defense, the new-look Knicks bucked a jittery start and led by as many as 18 points in the third quarter.

Electrifyin’ Toppin

Toppin came off the bench and energized the second unit with his athleticism and boundless energy.

The Brooklyn-born forward had to shrug off rookie jitters after missing his first two shots. He settled down right away and hustled his way to finish with 11 points highlighted by an emphatic dunk off a Kevin Knox feed.

He also grabbed seven rebounds in 20 minutes as Julius Randle’s backup.

“I thought he was very aggressive to start the game. [He] scored the ball, and then there was more attention. For his first game, I thought he did a lot of good things, and he saw when things work a certain way in the first half, sometimes it’s different in the second, and you have to read that as well,” Thibodeau said of Toppin’s first taste of NBA action. “But overall, very good. I loved his aggressiveness.”

RJ Barrett overcame a poor start to lead all scorers with 15 points and five boards. The Canadian wingman missed his first six shots and was 2-for-10 in the first half. But he hit his strides in the third quarter, teaming up with Alec Burks to lead the Knicks’ breakaway from a tight 48-47 halftime score.

The Pistons came charging back in the fourth quarter with their bench led by rookies Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. The home team closed the gap, 85-79, on Stewart layup before Randle’s jumper with 34.8 seconds left clinched the Knicks’ victory.

Randle had a solid all-around game, finishing with 11 points, eight rebounds, and six assists.

Centers of attention

The battle for the starting center spot will be interesting to watch as Nerlens Noel, and Mitchell Robinson alternately played a solid job anchoring the defense.

Noel had 10 points, eight rebounds, and two shot blocks as a starter, while Robinson came off the bench and turned in seven boards, four steals, two blocks, and two points in 22 minutes.

When asked what won Noel the starting job in this game, Thibodeau pointed to Noel’s elite rim protection and finishing at the basket.

“But I’m very pleased with Mitchell as well. So I think when you have two bigs that are like that, it’s a big bonus,” Thibodeau said. “And they’re very similar. I’m not sure who I’m gonna start, but I like both of those guys, and we’ll gonna need them to play well as a team.”

The Knicks’ signature Thibodeau defense held the Pistons to just 32.5 percent from the field. They had 12 steals and six blocks, forcing 22 turnovers and translated that to 19 points. They were also active on the glass, outrebounding the Pistons, 54-41. But the Knicks also got sloppy, and there were times Thibodeau wasn’t happy and even took his mask off to show his displeasure.

Thibodeau coached with a regular-season game intensity yelling and going after the referees after a bad call.

Payton’s job to lose

Elfrid Payton did a solid all-around job at the point, producing 10 points, six rebounds, and seven assists.

Dennis Smith Jr. looked more comfortable with his jumper, hitting a three-pointer in a seven-point effort off the bench.

With Austin Rivers sidelined by a groin injury, Frank Ntilikina spelled Barrett and finished with seven points and five boards.

Thibodeau used 11 players, with the Knicks’ other first-round pick Immanuel Quickley receiving a DNP.

Thibodeau and his staff will continue evaluating the roster when the Knicks play the Pistons again on Sunday at 7 p.m. E.T.

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