NBA

The Knicks’ second unit is finally finding its rhythm

Two games after Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau went to his new second unit in early December, Obi Toppin suffered a non-displaced fracture of his right fibula. When he returned a month later, RJ Barrett, a starter who almost always plays with the reserves, was out with a sprained right index finger.

Finally, Thibodeau’s second-unit quintet of Toppin, Barrett, Isaiah Hartenstein, Miles McBride and Immanuel Quickley are healthy at the same time and there are signs they can be productive for the Knicks.

On Tuesday night, that unit helped the Knicks build an 11-point lead in the second quarter, then had a strong fourth quarter as part of a 27-point performance. Two nights earlier, the group was instrumental in the Knicks overcoming an early 17-point deficit, though it also struggled in the fourth quarter of that loss to the Raptors. However, Quickley did not play in that game.

“Huge. I mentioned earlier that the bench was playing really well before RJ got hurt, then Obi got hurt and we haven’t found our rhythm,” Thibodeau said. “Now I think we’re starting to find that rhythm again .”


Obi Toppin #1, Immanuel Quickley #5 and Miles McBride #2 of the New York Knicks gather in action against the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden on March 28, 2022 in New York City.
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Isaiah Hartenstein of the New York Knicks celebrates after scoring against the Washington Wizards in the second half at Capital One Arena on January 13, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Isaiah Hartenstein #55 of the New York Knicks celebrates after scoring against the Washington Wizards in the second half at Capital One Arena on January 13, 2023 in Washington, DC.
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The total number of the five is not large, although it is a very small sample size. In 53 minutes together, they have a minus-6.2 NET rating. Their offensive rating is just 100, a poor number, while their defensive rating of 106.2 is solid.

But there has been a lot of shuffling due to injuries to Toppin and Barrett, Quickley missing a game with a sore left knee and Hartenstein being slowed by an Achilles injury. They showed what they can do against the Cavaliers, one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Toppin scored in double figures for the second straight game and produced 11 points. Quickley continued his ascension as an all-around quality player with nine points, six assists, five rebounds and a team-best plus-14 rating. McBride was aggressive and made quick decisions, dishing out three assists along with his typical quality defense. Then there was Hartenstein, who enjoyed one of his best games as a Knick with nine rebounds, four assists and a block. That included the game-saving stop at the rim by Donovan Mitchell in the final seconds.

“When they come in and they push the lead like that, it’s tough (or the opposition) because obviously it gives us an opportunity to rest, but it just gives our team some momentum and confidence when they play like that, Julius Randle said.

Consistency is definitely key, but so is health. They just haven’t shared the floor enough to develop cohesion. The Knicks need them to be productive to ease the burden on fellow stars Randle and Jalen Brunson. Quickley, who is averaging career highs in points (12.4), rebounds (4.0), field goal percentage (42.9) and minutes (27.4), has been consistent. It would be a big boost if Toppin found his form a year ago. Although his 3-point shooting has improved, up to a career-best 37 percent, his other numbers are way down. Lately, though, he’s started to find his game, perhaps because he’s shaken off the rust from all that time on the sidelines with his leg injury.


RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks looks on against the Toronto Raptors during the first half of their basketball game at Scotiabank Arena on January 22, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks looks up court against the Toronto Raptors during the first half of their basketball game at Scotiabank Arena on January 22, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
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“I loved his aggressiveness,” Thibodeau said. “He mixes it up, he doesn’t sit down. It’s some drives to the basket, it’s running the floor, it’s shooting the open 3.”

Overall, the bench is 26th in the league in scoring, but it has strong advanced numbers: sixth in offensive rating (114.9) and ninth in NET rating (plus-1.8). As the Knicks try to stay afloat amid a difficult schedule with defensive anchor Mitchell Robinson out for the next month with a broken right thumb, they will need their bench to make a positive impact on a consistent basis.

Their latest performance was a step forward in that direction.

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