The New York Knicks’ bench frontcourt is stepping up big time.
The New York Knicks fell behind 2-1 in the series, but a game two victory helped provide some hope for the rest of the postseason. After falling behind by 13 points at halftime, the New York Knicks clawed their way back to a 101-92 win that originally tied up their playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks at 1 game apiece. The win was even more impressive when you consider the team’s struggles in the starting frontcourt.
Julius Randle got into a rhythm in the second half of that game but is still shooting a ghastly 24.1% from the field through two contests. His playmaking has also seen a drop, averaging just 3.3 assists compared to 3.3 turnovers per game.
Nerlens Noel was admittedly nursing an ankle injury this series but has still been bested by the Hawks’ Clint Capela in all three games. He’s averaging just 5.3 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game in the playoffs after easily eclipsing all of those numbers in the regular season.
The team has desperately needed a jolt of energy from their bigs to complement the excellent play of Derrick Rose, and they got it in spades after the surprising play of Taj Gibson and Obi Toppin.
Gibson was acquired in early January after Omari Spellman disappointed in training camp, with most expecting the 12-year veteran to essentially be a player-coach who wouldn’t see any minutes.
Toppin was the highly-touted 8th overall pick of the 2020 draft but quickly received a reduced role in the offense once Julius Randle began his breakout season. The rookie averaged the fewest minutes per game of any rotation member.
Now, the two unlikeliest players to help secure victories in a playoff series have done exactly that.
While Toppin’s postseason averages of 5.7 points and 2.3 rebounds per game may seem unspectacular, they’re anything but. Those numbers equate to 17.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per 36 minutes.
He’s also shooting 54.5% from the field and 40.0% from three, displaying a supreme level of confidence in his offensive arsenal.
Toppin has also been excellent in the weakest aspects of his game this postseason: defense and intangibles. The rookie is now extremely versatile on the less glamorous end of the court and always seems like he’s in the right place at the right time, a stark contrast to his numerous “deer in headlights” moments from early on this season.
Toppin currently has the second-highest net rating of any Knick so far this series, and it isn’t hard to see why. He has immediately provided a spark on both ends of the floor whenever he checks into the game, looking a lot more like the player that fans expected to see when he was taken as a top pick last November.
Taj Gibson has also stepped up alongside Toppin, still making an impact in his 68th career playoff game. With Mitchell Robinson out with a foot fracture and Nerlens Noel hobbled with an ankle injury, the 35-year old played huge minutes at center down the stretch of a crucial home win.
Gibson was inserted into the starting lineup for the second half and performed tremendously, helping disrupt Trae Young’s dangerous floaters and eliminating potential lobs to imposing Hawks center Clint Capela. Capela averaged over 15 points per game in the regular season, he had just 4 on Wednesday night.
Gibson is averaging 7.3 rebounds so far this series, which would be the highest number out of each of his previous postseason runs. He’s also shooting 58% from the field, making the most of any scoring opportunity that arises. It comes with no surprise that Gibson was a +23 in their Game 2 victory, the highest single-game plus/minus by any player on either team in the series so far.
Perhaps his most underrated skill is his screen-setting ability. Nearly every Knicks highlight starts with an expert screen from Gibson, as he essentially eliminates the opposing defender from getting back into the play and allows Knicks ballhandlers like Derrick Rose to have a driving lane to the rim.
The New York Knicks were able to dominate the second half of Wednesday’s game due to the contributions of Toppin and Gibson, who have both proved that they can be trusted to give quality postseason minutes. They should continue to show up and show out as the series moves to Atlanta, stepping up to help New York secure a series-tying win.