The Knicks said it over and over again throughout training camp: Obi Toppin was a different player. He was going to contribute.
This wasn’t preseason hype meant to inflate a young player. At least, not on the first night of the regular season.
The second-year forward looked every bit like the player who flashed promise and potential in the playoffs and was the talk of training camp in the Knicks’ thrilling, 138-134, double-overtime victory over the Celtics at a packed and boisterous Garden on Wednesday night.
“He’s confident,” Julius Randle said. “He’s just playing to his strengths. All of that is from repetition and work. I’ve seen him work every day, he works extremely hard. You continue to work in this league year after year, you’re going to get better.”
Toppin was active, he defended and he shredded the Celtics in transition, scoring 14 impactful points in 28 minutes on 6 of 9 shooting. His three misses were from 3-point range. Otherwise, the 6-foot-9 forward was creating havoc in the paint or beating Boston downcourt after missed shots.
“Obi, I thought he changed the pace of the game,” new point guard Kemba Walker said. “He’s a very special talent. He can really run.”
In a 21-6 run bridging the third and fourth quarters, Toppin scored nine points, including two dunks. One was a soaring alley-oop in which he leaped over two Celtics. At that point, the “Obi, Obi, Obi,” chants that could be heard on several occasions returned, this time at their loudest.
“Man, hearing your name getting chanted in the Garden is amazing,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable experience that I can’t even explain. It’s just something you have to live through.”
So much has changed in the last year for Toppin. He got off to a slow start in his rookie year with the Knicks, frequently getting pulled after mistakes in the first half. It didn’t get him down. It motivated him. And after he began to play better late in the season, and earned his way into the rotation in the postseason, that pushed him after the season to build off of his strong finish.
“I just know the work that I’ve put in this offseason,” Toppin said. “I have a lot of great teammates, a lot of great coaches, that helped me this offseason get better. We’re not done working. We’re never satisfied. There’s always room for improvement, always room to get better.”