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Veteran coach Tom Thibodeau got his first win and rookie forward Obi Toppin his first points in sharp Knicks debuts as they won their first preseason game of the season, 90-84, over the Pistons at fan-less Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
The entire Knicks franchise was benched for exactly nine months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was almost worth the wait as Thibodeau’s new defense was disruptive and Toppin was dynamic.
Drafted last month with No. 8 pick, the Brooklyn-born, 6-foot-9 forward was silky smooth as he came off the bench. He notched 11 points, shooting 4-for-9 from the field, and had seven rebounds in 20:11 while spelling starting power forward Julius Randle.
The Pistons shot just 32 percent and committed 22 turnovers as the Knicks swarmed passing lanes and knocked balls away. During one timeout, Thibodeau, who has a 352-246 career record, lashed out at his team after the defense hesitated and allowed Blake Griffin to drill a wide open 3-pointer.
The Knicks led by as many as 18 points early in the fourth quarter before holding on, with Randle hitting the clinching 14-footer with 34.8 seconds left that drove the lead to eight points.
Toppin entered with 4:17 left in the first quarter, subbing in for Randle. While he showed nerves in the opening minute, missing his first two shots, including a wildly banked 3-point miss, he got rolling.
The 22-year-old scored on two straight possessions on post-ups — the first on a spin move to the basket for a layup and the second a soft turnaround in the lane.
In just 10:30 of first-half action, he put up nine points with five rebounds and made 3 of 4 free throws.
Nerlens Noel, making the start at center over Mitchell Robinson, notched a team-leading 10 points in the first half to lead their first-half scoring. But Robinson came off the bench to secure four steals.
The Knicks’ 2019 lottery pick, RJ Barrett, after an 0-for-6 start settled down and finished with 15 points (7-for-16 shooting) off a strong second half.
Before the game, Toppin sounded ready, saying he didn’t have any nerves.
“It feels a little different,’’ Toppin said. “I’ve been training for this moment for a very long time. And the time is finally here.’’
Barrett, meanwhile, struggled in the half, missing his first six shots and didn’t come close on a series of 3-pointers, throwing up two airballs. He was 2 of 10 by halftime — 0 for 4 from 3.
The Knicks led 48-47 at intermission with Thibodeau’s defense holding the Pistons to 34 percent shooting and forcing 11 turnovers.