That was pretty exhilarating.
I don’t know what exactly I was expecting to feel with the Knicks’ first game in nine months. Normally, even for the bum-ass Knicks, we’re only subjected to at most six months without basketball. This time around, we got nothing for about eight months and then a turbo offseason leading up to this rushed (and hopefully safe) season.
On one hand, I felt kind of excited. I do a lot of shit pertaining to the Knicks — I still write here, I host Locked On Knicks, I’m the Editor in Chief at our new site The Strickland — and it’s been really weird just having to manufacture shit to talk since March. So, seeing real life basketball again was a pretty cool thought.
On the other hand, I’ve kinda grown used to this comfort zone where I never had to do anything on much of a schedule and could just kinda go with the flow. Now, I gotta go back to planning my life around the Knicks for the next five months again!
But all the feelings — good, bad, or otherwise — that I was feeling before the Knicks’ first preseason game against the Pistons went out the window with one single play in the second quarter:
Holy fucking shit, dude.
Obi Toppin, of all people, the dude that I joked on draft night I’d need to check out VHS tapes to watch (he’s still older than RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, and Frank Ntilikina, by the way), is the guy that managed to completely get me on board with both tonight’s game and this upcoming season.
That play above was the first one that made me really hop off my couch and freak out a little. Obi gets the board and leads the break himself in transition. We’ve seen that before with Julius Randle, though, so who’s to say that’s a good thing for your power forward to do? But then he drives towards the hoop and kicks a beautiful pass to Kevin Knox before smartly fading out of bounds to give Knox a route to the hoop baseline. Only, Knox tries to go more towards the paint, so Obi then smartly (again) hops back inbounds into the dunker’s spot. Knox dishes it to him, Obi jumps about 40 feet in the air, hangs there for roughly an hour, and then slams the shit out of the ball. It was so magical.
I’ll get to more Obi in a sec, but the game itself and the script it followed was kind of fascinating too. Both teams came out looking as if they hadn’t played in nine months. RJ Barrett — the one shining light in the overall disappointing starting lineup of RJ, Elfrid Payton, Alec Burks, Julius Randle, and Nerlens Noel — really came out and blew chunks at the beginning. He just couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean, but to be fair, nobody really could.
Shake off the rust now, young king pic.twitter.com/rQHsONwsjC— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) December 12, 2020
The Pistons found a way to shake the rust slightly off faster than the Knicks could, and slowly but surely, the young bench mob started filtering in. Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Obi Toppin, and Mitchell Robinson slowly filtered into the game towards the end of the first quarter, and then shit got REAL fun.
The Knicks went on a 12-0 run from the end of the first to the early second quarter, and it was largely due to the young’uns turning it up on defense and bringing it on offense. They certainly weren’t splashing on the offensive end, either, but they at least did more than the Pistons managed to do.
Ultimately, the Knicks cruised to what was at times a double digit lead and held on for the six point win. Unfamiliar territory for the ’Bockers, but then again, these are unfamiliar times.
— So the main thing that I noticed that Obi didn’t do well — or, rather, just straight up couldn’t — was boxing out Jahlil Okafor. That’s alright. Okafor is a beefy dude, a former Phil Jackson crush for his big ol’ booty. I was worried that Toppin would be getting pushed around by guards like another former Knicks big man lottery pick, but it seems like by sheer force of will, Toppin will only really be tormented by the extra burly big men in the league.
— Meanwhile, Toppin just did not stop moving on either end. This maybe led to him gambling a little on defense once or twice and getting a smidge ahead of himself on offense, but his motor is unquestioned. I was really skeptical of picking him, and I’m gonna be really happy to be wrong if he works out. He got off to a good start with 11 points and seven boards in just 20 minutes in his debut.
— Already mentioned that RJ sucked to start, but he really put it together as the game went on and went back to doing what he does best — getting inside and scoring/drawing fouls close. He went 0-4 from deep (including two airballs) but did manage to pull out a respectable 15 points on 7-16 shooting.
— Elfrid Payton was actually not all that bad in this game. Some might even say he was good. He finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, and six assists, and especially on offense, I felt things ran a lot better with him than last year. Maybe it’s because he’s being encouraged to not just play buddy ball with Randle all game.
— Speaking of Randle, he also put up a respectable stat line, but all in all he looked like the same player as last year, more or less. When you have your prized new rookie out there stealing the show, it kinda just further serves to solidify the feeling that you want your previous free agent “prize” outta here ASAP.
— Nerlens Noel vs. Mitch is going to be an interesting battle for center minutes as the season goes on. Maybe more interesting than the battle there is the fact the Knicks will have 48 minutes of legitimate rim protection at their disposal in any given game, and that was on full display this game. That’s pretty awesome.
— Dennis Smith Jr. played about as well as he has in recent times, though his jumper still looks pretty “eh.” He was getting after it one defense, though, and seemed invigorated. He also had a really beautiful cut at one point (where he got fed an absolute dime by Obi).
— Frank Ntilikina did his usual thing of offering game-busting defense on Killian Hayes and others, that will largely go unnoticed because people will go, “See! He only scored seven points on 2-5 shooting, no threes, no assists, and four turnovers! He SUCKS!” The fact, though, is that Frank looked about as sharp on D as ever, and he made good decisions within the flow of the offense. He’s gonna be good this year if he’s afforded regular minutes.
— Lastly, no Immanuel Quickley and no Omari Spellman in this one, despite both seemingly being in the good with this staff/front office. Maybe we’ll see them Sunday.
So said Polo Montana: “Obi needs to start!” Yeah, dude needs to start yesterday. And Randle needs to get on out.