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1 unexpected lineup Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau must exploit after win over Celtics

Tom Thibodeau, Knicks

Tom Thibodeau might be aware that in recent New York Knicks history, coaches don’t seem to always find great new innovations on their own. Sometimes things just kind of fall into their laps.

Look at 2012-13, for example, probably the best Knicks season this century. Mike Woodson famously was quoted as saying “the East is big, man” and clearly would have preferred a Carmelo Anthony/Amar’e Stoudemire/Tyson Chandler front court above all else. But injuries to Amar’e made that impossible, and so was born the best-spaced Knicks lineup of the Melo era, featuring Anthony at the power forward spot for almost the entirety of the season as the Knicks won 53 games.

Though not quite on the scale of finding a new starting spot for the team’s best player, Tom Thibodeau and the 2021-22 Knicks might have a similar situation on their hands. Thanks to a surprisingly, drastically thin center rotation at the moment, a Julius Randle/Obi Toppin front court has finally gotten a chance. It’s safe to say they’ve made the most of it, as both times Thibodeau has deployed the small-ball lineup, the Knicks have staged a comeback and won the game — first in the final preseason game against Washington, and then in Wednesday’s season opener against the Celtics.

That’s not to say that the team should fully go away from utilizing the abilities of their very talented center rotation — Mitchell Robinson’s rim protection is already elite, even as he gets his legs back under him following his recovery from a broken foot. Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson also helped lead the Knicks to a top-five defense last season, and shouldn’t be totally cast aside.

But, as was sometimes the case during the regular season last year, and was definitely the case against the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs, the Knicks could use some gadget lineups to keep in their back pocket. Too often, Thibodeau has a tendency to stick with not just platoon shifts from the starters to the bench, but platoon shifts that effectively look and play the same way. Most good teams have at least one lineup that looks and feels different from their regular style of play, and if the Knicks want to ascend to a new height this year, playing small at times could be just that for them.

What’s led to the early success of the lineup so far this season? Pace, pace, pace. Toppin is (at least via the eye test) one of the fastest players getting end-to-end in the NBA, at least in his size bracket. The second the opposing team misses, he’s out in transition looking for an opportunity to get a slam at the other end. It’s led to a number of moments like this one:

The offense is rarely the issue when a team goes small, though. The issue is almost always the defense, and whether the team can hold up well enough against the biggest players on the other team on that end to have the offensive benefits pay off. Funny enough, when this small ball concept was discussed by and lobbied for by people last year, the discourse was always, “Can Obi be a 5 and defend 5s?” In reality, maybe the same question should have been asked about Randle. Against the Celtics, he did a really solid job defending the middle, including notching three blocks.

The small-ball approach likely won’t fly against teams playing dominant bigs, like Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic, but the Knicks can certainly use it for stretches if the biggest player staring them down on the other side is Robert Williams.

Time will tell how much Thibs utilizes this lineup this year, and hopefully with some more time on the court there will be some comprehensive enough numbers available to see if this is a valuable use of minutes on the court for the Knicks. Early returns suggest it just might be something worth going to even when the center rotation gets healthy and sorted out.