PHILADELPHIA — Desperation finally got Tom Thibodeau to try it.
The starting center, Mitchell Robinson, was out since the second quarter with a sore knee. The deficit reached 12 points with about 11 minutes remaining and the offense was sputtering.
Thibodeau required offense and the Sixers were undersized because Joel Embiid sat with the flu.
So for the first time in his Knicks tenure, Thibodeau gave the Julius Randle-Obi Toppin frontcourt a legitimate chance. It was a smashing success and spurred the Knicks to a 106-104 victory Friday night in Philadelphia, snapping a three-game losing streak.
“That’s one of the first times [I saw the Toppin-Randle frontcourt],” said point guard Jalen Brunson. “I found it worked.”
Toppin was the catalyst with 13 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, including a go-ahead trey with about 90 seconds remaining. Thibodeau prefers a traditional center, whether it’s Robinson or Isaiah Hartenstein, but the circumstances of the deficit and the Sixers playing small forced the coach out of his comfort zone.
If it’s a lineup Thibodeau embraces, it clears a hurdle toward one of the biggest conundrums of his tenure: finding more playing time for Toppin, the exciting fan favorite whose minutes have been limited as strictly Randle’s backup.
“We talked about getting the opportunity to do it,” Thibodeau said. “If it presents itself, we’ll do it.”
“We had the need. They were small, so the speed of the game and we were behind — I thought that was a way we could speed the game up a bit.”
Brunson, who scored eight of his team-high 23 points in the fourth quarter, was a fan of the configuration. Removing the center unclogged the paint and opened the driving lanes.
“We scored points and we won the game. I think that’s pretty special,” Brunson said. “Different dynamic, different look and we were able to flow through it and came out with a win.”
Thibodeau, coming off three blowout defeats, mixed it up beyond the fourth-quarter frontcourt. He tried a new starting lineup with Quentin Grimes replacing Evan Fournier. Then he tried an 11-man rotation.
But the adjustments were largely duds until the fourth quarter, when the Knicks (4-4) outscored the Sixers (4-6), 32-18, over the final 10 ½ minutes.
“We got in a hole. I liked the competitive spirit of the team, the fight,” Thibodeau said. “They put a lot of pressure on us with dribble penetration. I thought our closeouts were better. We got down the floor, got them spread out and we got some good looks.”
The Sixers (4-6) are considered pseudo-contenders when healthy, but they were ripe for picking off Friday without James Harden (out for a month with a foot injury) and Embiid (flu).
Thibodeau countered with Grimes at small forward.
The Knicks starters with Fournier had struggled in the three previous contests, all lopsided defeats. Thibodeau was hesitant to make lineup changes in his first two seasons with the Knicks, preferring consistency even during downtrends and baffling play at point guard.
But a backcourt of Fournier and Jalen Brunson was always problematic given their defensive deficiencies. Thibodeau labeled Grimes’ chance as an evaluation.
“Each season’s different, each situation’s different. So you just take it by — you’re looking at everything,” Thibodeau said. “You’re studying your team. You want to take a look at something. We didn’t have an opportunity to get a look at Quentin in the starting lineup in the preseason. We were going to evaluate it then. So this gives us an opportunity to do it now.”
The ‘evaluation’ didn’t last long in the first half. Grimes was subbed out after two quick fouls and didn’t return until the third quarter. He finished with just two points in 20 ineffective minutes.
“There’s nothing set in stone,” Thibodeau said about the lineup. “It’ll be game by game, get a look at different guys.”
The big adjustment was unleashing Toppin.
Robinson limped to the locker room in the second quarter and was ruled out for the remainder with a “sore knee,” according to the Knicks. Robinson, who missed 51 games the last two seasons (most of them because of a fractured foot), was scoreless in 12 minutes Friday with three fouls.