The Knicks are facing a 2-1 hole heading into Game 4 in Atlanta on Sunday after another underwhelming offensive performance. New York shot 35.8% from the field as a team, and got nothing out of its two leading scorers – Julius Randle and RJ Barrett – who shot a combined 4–for-24 on the evening.
Though plainly missing shots was part of the equation, nothing came easy to the Knicks on that end, and it’s clear a change is needed. The long awaited benching of Elfrid Payton was not enough to right the ship, and it’s unclear what aces Tom Thibodeau still has up his sleeve.
One idea: run the Randle-Obi Toppin lineup. We saw close to none of it in the regular season, and we don’t know if it’s made an appearance in practice. But barring some creative on-the-fly offensive playbook restructuring, this might be the best available move.
Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson, though effective all season and a dependable center rotation this series, allow Atlanta to muck things up in the pick-and-roll. Neither have been able to impose themselves as roll threats and aren’t finding shooters consistently on dump-offs.
Toppin offers some dynamic play Noel and Gibson don’t. He’s the better three-point shooter, hovering in the low 30’s since April and knocking in two of five this series. He’s the best lob threat, with Gibson ground-bound and Noel with questionable hands. That additional vertical spacing could help alleviate the pressure Randle is feeling from the constant shadow down low from Clint Capela/whatever big isn’t on him.
Toppin has proven a sharp passer as well, when given the chance. His presence on the court encourages ball movement, constantly handing off the ball to his teammates and setting ball screens, then relocating and starting over. His ability to get out and run in transition will help the Knicks push off stops, even makes, to get easy buckets.
That’s the idea, anyway. There’s no telling how this holds up defensively or on the boards. Letting him loose to this extent in an intense postseason series is certainly a risk, but it can be argued the Knicks need to take some right now, instead of hope things turn around themselves.
Toppin himself doesn’t need to play the games of his life. That would be a much needed plus, but the change primarily serves Randle, in using Toppin’s skillset to get him better looks. Even sticking Toppin in the corner gives Randle an easy release valve, one that theoretically can make some plays with the defense scrambling.
Toppin should also work as a better screen option for Randle than Noel or Gibson. The Knicks ran a lot more 4-5 pick-and-rolls in Game 3, a smart move to ideally get Randle some good looks. However, he still felt the pressure of two players as Noel and Gibson were largely ignored or a pass thrown their direction led to a bad outcome. Toppin popping, or being a dunk-on-your-head threat rolling, is a new look worth trying.
Is it panic time for the New York Knicks? No, not yet. But it’s clear their offense isn’t working right now, and unless the switch just flips, they need to throw new looks out there to get in running. Getting Toppin and Randle on the floor together could be the answer.