ATLANTA — It’s not anything with lingering knee pain. Obi Toppin ruled that out.
“Not at all,” he said Friday.
But something has been off with Toppin, something very noticeable if you’ve watched his performances since the return from the fractured knee bone — even right before the freak injury.
Toppin’s not the high-flying whirl of energy from last season, no longer the dunk artist in transition. In the six games prior to Friday against the Hawks, Toppin managed just 13 points — total.
His playing time has been cut as Tom Thibodeau leans further into Julius Randle, and Toppin’s role, when he’s on the court, has largely been to stand in the corner as a bystander to the halfcourt offense. Heading into Friday, Toppin hadn’t scored off a cut or finished an alley-oop since returning from injury, per The Athletic.
As one Eastern Conference executive noted after Toppin’s scoreless performance in Wednesday’s loss to the Wizards, “He seems like an afterthought. Not involved whatsoever.”
“I feel like I’m going to get back to [cutting and getting to the rim],” Toppin said. “I’m going to do things on the court that either open things up for everybody else or find me open looks.”
Toppin’s field-goal percentage sunk to 40.2% heading into Friday, which was down from 53% last season. It’s not the upward trend the Knicks were hoping for from their 2020 lottery pick.
“It’s just more repetitions in the game,” Toppin reasoned, eager for the easy solution. “Just having an opportunity to shoot some shots in the game, get that touch again. And I feel like once I get that touch — I’m shooting well in practice, I’m shooting well here, it’s just in the game, having those game looks, finding that rhythm again.”
Isaiah Hartenstein has big shoes to fill at center and a slump to break. And he’ll get an opportunity with Mitchell Robinson out for at least three weeks following thumb surgery.
The 24-year-old is one of two candidates to replace Robinson in the lineup — along with Jericho Sims — and he knows that his shot has to fall more consistently.
“I think now the last couple of games where I said I was overthinking, I think those were the shots where I have to make the floaters, the shots,” Hartenstein said. “I’ll make those, just have to be confident.”
The good news is Hartenstein said his sore Achilles, which has hampered the German since training camp, has improved.
“I feel like I can jump a little bit, dunk the ball a little bit more,” Hartenstein said. “So I think when that keeps getting better and better defensively I’ll feel more confident.”
Still, it’s fair to say Hartenstein still isn’t fully comfortable with his role as a Thibodeau center, which is often limited to rebounding and paint defense.
“It’s a combination of stuff. Some stuff is on me. Some stuff is just maybe I haven’t found the rhythm or the shots I normally get,” Hartenstein said. “So, it’s all stuff I normally make, so I think there was some maybe mental part where I was maybe a little frustrated but then I just gotta control what I can control and it’ll come back.”
The Knicks went .500 when Robinson missed eight games in November with a sprained knee.