According to Obi Toppin, the angry exchange with assistant coach Rick Brunson in Philadelphia is not only water under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, it was the spark to the power forward’s best quarter of the season.
Brunson and Toppin got into an argument during a timeout of the Knicks’ comeback victory Friday night over the Sixers. Although the TV cameras didn’t catch the moment, a witness said there was at least one expletive during the exchange and the pair required physical separation.
Toppin said Brunson’s contention was about effort — acknowledging there were “a little bit of extra words” involved — and the message worked.
“He looked at me and told me to play harder. And I was like, ‘I got you,’” Toppin said. “But I had to step it up and he made it known I had to step up. Then it happened in the second half.”
Toppin dropped 13 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, playing effectively alongside Julius Randle for the first time this season in a significant stretch. The Knicks recovered from 12 points down and Toppin hat-tipped his assistant.
“That’s my family. I love Rick. It’s just basketball. Competitive,” Toppin said. “You see what happened when he did that. It got me going. He knows that about me. Me and him will always have love for each other. Nothing serious.”
Brunson and Toppin have a prior relationship that helps smooth over such quarrels. Not long after COVID-19 hit and basketball around the country paused, Brunson trained Toppin in Dajuan Wagner’s gym in South Jersey.
That was also during the pre-draft process and the Knicks liked the intel enough to pick Toppin eighth overall in 2020.
“Don’t take it personally,” Toppin said. “Like [by Saturday night], it was like the argument never happened. That’s family. I love Rick to death.”
Tom Thibodeau, no stranger to fiery drama after coaching Jimmy Butler, Kevin Garnett and Charles Oakley, labeled the Brunson-Toppin exchange as, “Just normal NBA stuff. Heat of the battle.”
Toppin wasn’t as effective alongside Randle during Saturday’s loss to the Celtics, a defeat defined by Boston’s franchise-record 27 3-pointers. Toppin finished with seven points on 3-of-9 shooting, and the Knicks (4-5) were outscored by 22 points in his 15 minutes.
Thibodeau, who has been resistant to play Toppin and Randle together because he feels more comfortable with a traditional rim-protecting center, may feel compelled to experiment with it further over the next few games.
Mitchell Robinson, the starting center, is out at least a week with a sprained knee, an injury that often keeps players shelved a month or longer.
“Obviously the pace of the game is much faster [with Toppin and Randle as the frontcourt], so that’s a big plus,” Thibodeau said after Saturday’s defeat. “I want to see the film. I just didn’t think our defense with any group was what it needed to be. But I do like it. I like what it gives us.”