Obi Toppins surprise outing may spark new Knicks strategy

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ATLANTA — With Nerlens Noel still gimpy with a sprained ankle, Tom Thibodeau kept Taj Gibson as his starting center.

After Noel played an ineffective 14 minutes, Thibodeau tried a new look in the fourth quarter he hasn’t attempted in a long while — moving Julius Randle to center and keeping rookie lottery pick Obi Toppin in at power forward.

It’s a small-ball alignment Thibodeau has talked about using but really never has.

But with Game 5 looming — as well as next season — Thibodeau may just try it again Wednesday at the Garden with Toppin’s springy game while holding his own on defense, surprisingly.

“Right now we’re at the point where everything is on the table,’’ Thibodeau said. “And Nerlens is a warrior. He’s given us everything he has. We have great belief in him. He’s nicked up, but he’s out there fighting. The shot blocking, the rim protecting is critical. So give us what you have.’’

But is it enough? Toppin played 18:34 and scored 13 points, hitting 5 of 8 shots, though much of it came during fourth-quarter garbage time.

When the game was close, in the first half, Toppin scored on a tip-in and a hard-driving lefty finger-roll. He also shot an airball that led to a fast-break bucket for Atlanta early in the fourth quarter.

But Toppin is in the moment, doesn’t look intimidated and his ability to perhaps get some putbacks is something needed since starting center Mitchell Robinson went down with a broken foot in March.

Before the first round, the coaching staff mulled whether to reduce his minutes for defensive purposes. But now — perhaps with the future in mind — this could be an opportunity to let him roll in Game 5 as he’s become a fan favorite despite a modest rookie year.

Noel, meanwhile, is not doing much on the glass or getting any garbage baskets. Noel was a minus-15 and didn’t even have a shot attempt, scoring one point, with zero blocks and just two rebounds. He was invisible as Atlanta ruled the glass, 48-39.

The Knicks have third-string center Norvel Pelle available, but he hasn’t played a single minute.

Derrick Rose made his second straight start at PG over Elfrid Payton, who again did not play. Thibodeau put in Frank Ntilikina at the point for the final 22 seconds of the first half for a defensive possession. … Rookie Immanuel Quickley hasn’t distinguished himself in the series. In 13 minutes, he was scoreless (0 for 3). … Though new signee Luca Vildoza of Argentina is out of quarantine in New York, the combo guard didn’t join the Knicks in Atlanta to cheer them on. Thibodeau didn’t indicate if Vildoza will even be in Tarrytown to practice with the club. “No, he hasn’t, not yet,’’ Thibodeau said of joining the club. “It’s for later in the summer.’’ The Knicks used the 15th roster spot for Vildoza when they could have signed a series of different free agents. The Knicks had two open roster spots after the trade deadline after shipping out Austin Rivers and Iggy Brazdeikis. Rivers is now a key contributor to Denver’s playoff run.

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