On opening night, RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin heard their names chanted by the Madison Square Garden crowd, quite an honor for ballplayers in their early 20s who have not done any significant winning. They were impactful, high-flying catalysts in the second half Wednesday night, rising above the Celtics to the delight of Knicks fans.
Everyone went home happy with the short-term gain. Coming off a nearly magical regular season that died a painful first-round death in the playoffs, the Knicks survived a series of breakdowns at the end of regulation in the season opener to prevail in double overtime. They showed some grit and ingenuity and, better yet, they beat the rival franchise (with 17 championships) that has been everything the Knicks (with two championships) haven’t been for so, so long.
But as the Knicks prepared to play Game 2 of Tom Thibodeau’s Season 2 at Orlando on Friday night, the signs of potential long-term gain remained more important to New Yorkers interested in turning Boston’s 17-2 lead in titles into Boston’s 17-3 lead in titles. Barrett and Toppin are those living, breathing signs.
They were not the Knicks who scored more than 30 points against the Celtics (those were Julius Randle and Evan Fournier), and neither Barrett nor Toppin delivered a flawless performance. Barrett was a complete nonentity in the first half, and Toppin missed all three of his 3-point attempts.
And yet their explosive bursts that, temporarily, overwhelmed Boston and all but set the building ablaze suggested the 21-year-old Barrett and 23-year-old Toppin are on the come. The Knicks need that to be the case, of course. They need Barrett and Toppin to grow into serious NBA players and either become key pieces on a championship team or, perhaps more likely, valuable assets to help acquire, in the not-too-distance future, the superstar (or two) who can help the Knicks win it all for the first time since 1973.
Some Knicks fans are understandably tired of looking at every positive step in a big-picture context. After suffering for the better part of two decades, those fans merely want to enjoy what Thibodeau accomplished last year against the odds, and what he might accomplish this year in the postseason, perhaps winning a round (or two). Thibodeau told The Post the other day that last season’s relentless and selfless team reminded him of the late-1990s Knicks he helped Jeff Van Gundy coach.
But those fans need to realize that even though Thibodeau is using the 1990s approach, he always has one eye on the 1970s, when his favorite childhood team won two championships. Thibs is 63 years old. He doesn’t want to wait any longer to win his first ring as a head coach, a point he made clear last season when he said the Knicks had to constantly focus on the pursuit of elite talent.
“Sometimes you have to do it through trades, sometimes it’s free agency,” Thibodeau said then. “But I think you have to be very aggressive in seeking out those opportunities. They just don’t happen by accident. You have to make them happen.”
If Barrett becomes a star, and if Toppin becomes a productive starter — or a sixth man good enough to be one — the Knicks will stand a greater chance to make those moves happen. Asset development is everything right now. Barrett took a big leap from his rookie year to his sophomore year, and Toppin was a much better player late last season than he was early, when he seemed the kind of lost newbie who might someday get somebody fired.
Barrett was the third-overall pick in his draft, and Toppin was the eighth-overall pick in his. The Knicks had swung and missed on their previous top-10 picks, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, and failed to keep happy a fourth-overall pick, Kristaps Porzingis, so they can’t afford Barrett and Toppin ending up as relative disappointments.
On his end, Barrett has to remind people he was once ranked ahead of Zion Williamson as a Duke-bound high-school recruit. He has to continue to improve as a perimeter shooter, as a defender and as a finisher at the rim, and pack on a few more pounds onto the muscle he already has added.
Toppin? As Fournier said, “Obi is really learning how to become an NBA player.” In the open floor, the former Dayton Flyer sometimes made the Celtics look as if they were his physically overmatched opponents in the Atlantic 10. He still has a long way to go.
So do the Knicks. They are better now with the additions of Fournier and Kemba Walker, and deep enough to make a little postseason noise. But if they ever want to make a lot of postseason noise, the developing kids, Barrett and Toppin, will allow them to make it. One way or the other.