PHILADELPHIA — Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Tom Thibodeau certainly coached that way Friday night.
Thibodeau shook up the Knicks’ starting lineup, replacing Evan Fournier with Quentin Grimes. He went small, with RJ Barrett as his power forward. He even looked at the Julius Randle-Obi Toppin couple at length – although he resisted this tandem as it leaves the Knicks without a rim protector.
The result was a well-deserved win over the shorthanded 76ers, their 12-point rally in the final quarter engineered by Toppin and Randle. Toppin, finally given extended minutes, hit the go-ahead 3-pointer on a Randle flat with 1:25 left, and the Knicks snapped a three-game losing streak to the Sixers, 106-104, at the Wells Fargo Center.
“I loved how those guys played in the fourth quarter,” Thibodeau said.
Joel Embiid was out with the flu and the 76ers were playing without a proper center, so Thibodeau went to see Randle and Toppin together. The duo helped the Knicks rally after a poor performance thus far. Thibodeau had been cornered in a corner: his team was in trouble and starting center Mitchell Robinson was out with a sore right knee he suffered in the second quarter.
“We had talked about it, if the opportunity had arisen,” Thibodeau said. “You have a group if you’re late, at some point in the game you go small to change the variance of the game, to speed it up, to get more 3-point shots.”
The battling Knicks (4-4) were down 12 with 10:36 remaining when Thibodeau inserted Randle into play and kept Toppin down. The Knicks outscored the 76ers by 16 over the next 10 minutes, capped by a three-point play from Jalen Brunson with 1:05 left that gave them a four-point lead.
Toppin scored 10 points during that streak and finished with a season-high 17 for the game, playing 20 minutes. Brunson scored a team-high 23 points and added seven assists, while Barrett had 22 points and nine rebounds. Randle added 17 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and six turnovers — but none in the fourth quarter — and he made four free throws in the final 24.1 seconds.
Thibodeau choosing to play Randle and Toppin together came as a surprise. He’s rarely gone to them in the same lineup because he thinks it hurts the Knicks more than it helps them. The two shared the floor for just 101 minutes all last season. Brunson said they rarely train with them on the same side. But the Knicks were down and they needed a spark.
Despite their lack of size, the Knicks’ defense was solid in the fourth quarter, limiting the 76ers to 6 for 22 shooting and creating opportunities in transition. Randle didn’t attempt a shot while playing with Toppin, but he had five rebounds and two assists.
“There were several rooms [on which] we had easy baskets because of the way we ran the floor,” Thibodeau said. “A lot of times it was a guy sprinting across the floor, dragging people with him, opening it up to someone else.”
Tyrese Maxey led the 76ers (4-6), who were also without James Harden, with 31 points and Tobias Harris had 23. But Maxey managed just four points in the final quarter as he was stalked by Cam Reddish (11 points, plus- 19 in 15 minutes).
The 76ers had chances in the final minute. Maxey and De’Anthony Melton each missed a 3-pointer that would have put them ahead, as the Knicks reversed the script from their previous two games when they squandered big leads.
“Great moment,” Brunson said. “We were able to fight back and stick together. We just found a way.
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