PHILADELPHIA — Desperation finally got Tom Thibodeau to try it.
His starting center, Mitchell Robinson, was out since the second quarter with a sore knee. His team’s deficit hit 12 points with about 11 minutes remaining.
The coach needed points and the Sixers were undersized because Joel Embiid caught 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. With Toppin hitting the go-ahead trey with about 90 seconds remaining, the Knicks (4-4) completed their comeback Friday night over the shorthanded Sixers, 106-104, snapping a three-game losing streak as Thibodeau departed from his comfort zone.
The coach mixed it up beyond the fourth-quarter frontcourt. He tried a new starting lineup with Quentin Grimes replacing Evan Fournier. He tried an 11-man rotation.
But the adjustments were largely duds until the fourth quarter when Toppin scored 13 of his 17 points and ignited the offense.
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.
The big adjustment was unleashing Toppin.
The power forward could get more opportunities. Robinson, the starting center, 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.