After playing a minor role early in the series, Obi Toppin had a breakout Game Four and could become an x-factor if utilized more.

When Brooklyn native Obi Toppin was drafted eighth overall in 2020 by the Knicks, he was brought to tears, as he was able to rep his home city and live out his lifelong dream. But dreams often fail to align with reality, and Obi’s tenure in New York has been decent at best. Thanks to a combination of factors — Julius Randle’s ascendency, lack of trust from Tom Thibodeau, and the deep big man depth on the roster — he hasn’t quite got rolling yet in three seasons in the Big Apple. The now 25-year-old is still part of the young core but hasn’t garnered the opportunities necessary to really take off in this league.

Toppin surely has the talent, but the lack of burn has resulted in underwhelming numbers, despite showing flashes of excellence. His limited minutes have had many Knicks fans question if it’s time to move on from the former Flyer, not because of his skill, but because of how the coaching staff views him as a fit within the current roster construct.

Luckily for Obi and his supporters, things can change quickly in the NBA and there now seems to be a door slightly ajar for him to get his chance to take off as a Knick.

Opportunity Knocks

Being ready when called upon is a hallmark of a player who can stick and thrive in the NBA. Once the calendar flipped from March to April, and Randle was forced to miss time with an injury, Toppin took his game to another level to close out the regular season. Toppin scored 21-plus points in three of the Knicks’ final four games, including 32 and 34-point performances, both against the Indiana Pacers, where he hit five three-pointers in each contest, per ESPN Stats. Despite the accomplishments happening in the part of the year sometimes referred to as “Silly Season,” it was awesome to see the fan favorite Toppin showcase his full bag with Tom Thibodeau taking the training wheels off and giving him ample minutes. Most of us were hesitant to put a ton of stock or get too excited about Obi’s showings because there was an assumption that he would be relegated back to his role of around 12-15 minutes per game in the Playoffs, which was true in Games One through Three thus far against the Cavs.

However, in a pivotal Game Four, the often rigid Thibodeau decided to bench Julius Randle the entire fourth quarter in favor of Toppin, who played well down the stretch, pouring in some huge, momentum-shifting buckets.

Randle was abysmal offensively in Game Four and looked as if his ankle was really bothering him. Aside from his poor numbers, Julius’ body language was off, as he seemed to sulking at times throughout the game, something you never want to see from your star in the playoffs. Credit to Thibs, who made the move to bring in the fresher and more engaged Toppin, as he simultaneously saw the Cavs crawling back into the game and Randle not right physically and mentally.

Toppin, in a high-pressure situation, made the most of his chance and has certainly earned the right to play more going forward. If allowed to, he could also be a factor in lighting a fire under Randle, who temporarily reverted back to his old ways and has paid the price for it with his benching.

Bringing the Energy

Playoff basketball and regular season basketball are two different sports in many ways, including the overall energy in the building and from the players. With the first 82 games becoming increasingly more meaningless and just viewed as a tune-up for the postseason, the atmosphere we are seeing in this series versus most regular season contests is unmatched.

In terms of igniting crowds and bringing the juice, there are few players who do that quite like Toppin, who is uber-athletic and exciting when he’s on the floor. Based on electricity alone, Toppin brings something new and much-needed any time he steps on the court. Yes, Randle is a better player than Obi and assuming his ankle didn’t get worse, I would expect to see more Julius minutes than Obi minutes in the playoffs. How much more is the big question. I think Thibs’ eyes were opened up by the way that Toppin helped close out the game, by bringing a level of activity and swagger to the contest that helped push the Knicks to the finish line victorious.

The Cavs are a young, high-energy team, and letting their young core in Mitchell, Garland, Allen, and Mobley get rolling could make it difficult for the Knicks to close out this series, especially since Game Five will be in Cleveland. Look for Thibs to have a quick hook with Randle and be quick to call Obi’s number if there is any sort of momentum building from the Cavs’ side. Just like Obi can ignite the home faithful with his play, he can be just as effective in silencing the Rocket Mortgage fans if he is able to go in and do some explosive things.

Looking Ahead

If Toppin can continue to get and take advantage of his opportunities this postseason, it could spell a renaissance for him heading into his fourth NBA season. Toppin is under contract for another season and is an unrestricted free agent after the ’23-’24 season, so he will likely be a Knick for at least another season, barring any sort of trade.

Building momentum on the biggest stage of the postseason could go a long way in building equity with Tom Thibodeau, who will likely be the headman next season as well. Julius Randle is still under contract next year, so you won’t see Toppin supersede Randle in the rotation. In terms of wings who are currently ahead of Toppin in terms of playing time, there’s Josh Hart, who may or may not (but almost certainly will) be back next season, and R.J. Barrett, who has regressed in year four and hasn’t lived up to his billing. There is an avenue for Toppin to be able to slide in if Hart leaves and/or if Barrett continues to trend downward. Even if Hart returns and Barrett improves, if Obi plays well enough during the playoffs and has a good offseason, there is almost no choice but for Thibs to work him into the rotation in an increased capacity from what we’ve seen.

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