Two games after Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau went to his new second unit in early December, Obi Toppin suffered an undisplaced fracture to his right fibula. When he returned a month later, RJ Barrett, a starter who almost always plays with the reserves, was out with a lacerated right index finger.
Finally, Thibodeau’s second-unit quintet of Toppin, Barrett, Isaiah Hartenstein, Miles McBride and Immanuel Quickley are healthy at the same time, and there are signs they can be productive for the Knicks.
On Tuesday night, that unit helped the Knicks take an 11-point second-quarter lead and then put together a strong fourth quarter in a 27-point performance. Two nights earlier, the group played a pivotal role in the Knicks overcoming an early 17-point deficit, though they also struggled in the fourth quarter of that loss to the Raptors. Quickley, however, did not play in this game.
“Huge. I mentioned it earlier that the bench was playing great before RJ got injured and then Obi got injured and we didn’t find our rhythm,” Thibodeau said. we’re starting to get that rhythm back.”
The overall numbers of the five are not large, although it is a very small sample. In 53 minutes together, they have a minus-6.2 NET rating. Their offensive rating is a mediocre 100, while their defensive rating of 106.2 is solid.
But there were plenty of reshuffles due to injuries to Toppin and Barrett, Quickley missed a game with a sore left knee and Hartenstein was slowed by an Achilles injury. They showed what they could do against the Cavaliers, one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Toppin scored in double figures for the second straight game, producing 11 points. Quickley continued his rise as a quality all-rounder, scoring nine points, six assists, five rebounds and a team-best plus-14 rating. McBride was aggressive and made quick decisions, delivering three assists with his typical quality defense. Then there was Hartenstein, who had one of his best games as a Knick with nine rebounds, four assists and a block. That included Donovan Mitchell’s life-saving edge save in the dying seconds.
“When they come in and they poke their heads like that, it’s hard [or the opposition]because it obviously allows us to rest, but it just brings some momentum and confidence to our team when they play like that,” said Julius Randle.
Consistency is clearly key, but so is health. They simply did not share the floor enough to develop cohesion. The Knicks need it to be productive, to lighten the load on co-stars Randle and Jalen Brunson. Quickley, with average career highs in points (12.4), rebounds (4.0), field goal percentage (42.9) and minutes (27.4), has been a constant. Toppin regaining his form from a year ago would be a major boost. Although his 3-point shooting has improved, to a career-high 37%, his other numbers are all down. Lately, though, he’s started to find his game, maybe he’s shaken off the rust from all that time on the sidelines with his leg injury.
“I loved his aggressiveness,” Thibodeau said. “He mixes things up, he doesn’t work out. It’s a few drives to the basket, it runs on the floor, it shoots the open 3.
Overall, the bench is 26th in the league in scoring, but it has solid forward numbers: sixth in offensive rating (114.9) and ninth in NET rating (plus-1.8). As the Knicks try to stay afloat in a tough schedule while defensive anchor Mitchell Robinson is out for the next month with a broken right thumb, they’ll need their bench to make a positive impact on a consistent basis.
Their latest showing was a step forward in that direction.