The Garden loved the new and improved Obi Toppin.
Less than a year ago, Toppin looked lost and overwhelmed on the court, a rookie in headlights. But Wednesday’s 14-point effort in 28 minutes — highlighted by a poster dunk over Celtics guard Payton Pritchard — offered further evidence that the bust labels were premature.
“It was Obi I think who changed the pace of the game,” Kemba Walker said after the Knicks’ 138-134 double OT victory. “He’s a special talent. He can really run. He can get out in the open floor.”
The Knicks looked overmatched in the first half against the Celtics, which forced coach Tom Thibodeau into a key lineup adjustment.
In the absence of two centers — Nerlens Noel (sore knee) and Taj Gibson (personal reasons) — Thibodeau initially tried a rotation of Mitchell Robinson and rookie Jericho Sims. It didn’t work. The Knicks trailed by as many as 12, and Sims wasn’t quite ready for the uptick in intensity. Thibodeau finally, and probably reluctantly, turned to small ball in the third quarter with Toppin and Randle in the front court, which spurred a 23-9 run to take an 86-80 advantage.
Toppin, the high-flyer, capitalized on fastbreak points and the configuration spread the floor to finally unlock RJ Barrett, who was scoreless through 2 ½ quarters but dropped 14 points in the final six minutes of the third.
Randle, who scored 35 points and was close to a triple-double, loved the idea of playing center.
“I do. I think it was really effective,” he said. “Us being able create activity. If they put me at the five, I feel like any 5 in the league is going to be a mismatch [for them].”
The Celtics are an ideal opponent for a small lineup since their center is the 6-foot-9 Robert Williams. With a full Knicks roster, it’s still unlikely Thibodeau utilizes a small lineup for sustained minutes moving forward.
But it worked in the opener. Especially for Toppin, who listened to the Garden crowd chant his name after his thunderous dunks, “Obi, Obi, Obi.”
“Man, to hear your name being chanted at the Garden is amazing,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable experience that I can’t even explain.”
Toppin even flashed his bravado by pointing at Pritchard after dunking on his head (though he wouldn’t quite admit to it postgame).
“I don’t know what happen,” Toppin said with a smile.
At least three Knicks have cracked the NBA’s top-75 all-time players.
Walt Frazier, Patrick Ewing and Willis Reed — almost unarguably the three greatest Knicks of all-time — were among the first 50 players released.
With 25 spots left — which will be released Thursday — probably only Carmelo Anthony qualifies as a candidate with a memorable Knicks career.