One of Tom Thibodeau’s primary objectives through the first two preseason games has been to find out how his $104 million new point guard, Jalen Brunson, fits in with the Knicks’ first unit.
Another has been affording some extended minutes to a couple of returning young players, such as Obi Toppin, to determine if they deserve increased rotation consideration off the bench.
Brunson posted his second straight effective performance and Toppin dunked and fired his way to a 24-point game with an acrobatic second-half display to front the Knicks to another preseason victory, 131-114, Friday night over the Pacers at the Garden.
“Having Jalen sets the tone for the movement, and to me, the number one job of the point guard is controlling the game and keeping us organized,” Thibodeau said after the game. “And Obi brings life in everything he does. He walks in the building and there’s a bounce to him.
“He energizes the team and you can feed off of that. I think when he’s playing defense and getting out, we play fast. Everything is fast with him.”
Toppin, the Knicks’ first-round draft pick in 2020, mostly has seen limited minutes in his first two seasons as the team’s backup power forward behind 2021 All-Star Julius Randle.
But he heard multiple chants of his name from the home crowd in the second half after executing a highlight-reel dunk between his legs in the third quarter, and again after throwing down three more jams — plus two 3-pointers — in the fourth.
“This is Madison Square Garden, so it’s never going to get old,” Toppin said of the chants.
On the third-quarter dunk, Toppin said he didn’t realize that Pacers guard TJ McConnell was closing on him and within striking distance of knocking the ball free before the reigning NBA dunk champion slid it between his legs and flushed it home.
“Hell yeah, I better not miss it,” Toppin said. “I tell you, I saw McConnell down there after I already put it through my legacy. I’m like, ‘Please don’t hit the ball out of my hands.’ This is while I’m doing the dunk. I’m like please don’t hit it. But nah, if I do it I’m going to make it. I’ve got to make it. There’s no missing.
“I saw him standing there, I’m like, sheesh, I hope he don’t hit this ball. I was able to make it and that’s all that matters.”
RJ Barrett netted 16 of his 18 points in the first half, Brunson and Immanuel Quickley each scored 17 and Randle finished with 15 for the Knicks, who will travel to Indiana for their third preseason game on Wednesday.
Cam Reddish notably started in place of shooting guard Evan Fournier, who was rested, but he managed just two points on 1-for-7 shooting in 22 minutes.
Barrett netted 11 points in the first nine minutes, and Derrick Rose (seven points in 12 minutes) shimmied to the rim twice for buckets late in the first quarter, although the Knicks trailed by five entering the second.
Toppin, who finished 4-for-7 from 3-point range, and Miles McBride each nailed a couple of shots from long range to help build a 72-54 lead into intermission. The Knicks maintained a 15-point cushion into the final quarter, when Toppin further put on a show for the home crowd.
“He’s a fun player, man,” Barrett said. “That’s one guy you come to watch. He’s really fun out there. I still don’t understand how he gets those leak-out dunks every second. He really does run the floor and he’s making his shots now.
“Going into Year 3, he looks so much more poised. He’s really been working on his game so we’re happy to have him.”