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 at power forward. He even gave a long look to the Julius Randle-Obi Toppin pairing — though he has resisted that tandem because it leaves the Knicks without a rim protector.
The result was a much-needed victory over the shorthanded 76ers, their rally from 12 points down in the final quarter engineered by Toppin and Randle. Toppin, finally given extended minutes, hit the go-ahead 3-pointer on a Randle dish with 1:25 left, and the Knicks snapped a three-game losing streak against the Sixers, 106-104, at Wells Fargo Center.
“I loved the way those guys played in the fourth quarter,” Thibodeau said.
Joel Embiid was out with the flu and the 76ers were playing without a true center, so Thibodeau went to Randle and Toppin together. The duo helped the Knicks rally after a shoddy performance up until that point. Thibodeau had been backed into a corner: His team was struggling and starting center Mitchell Robinson was out with a sore right knee he suffered in the second quarter.
“We had been talking about it, if the opportunity had presented itself,” Thibodeau said. “You have a grouping if you’re behind, at a certain point in the game you’re going small to change the variance of the game, to speed it up, to get more 3-point shooting.”
The scuffling Knicks (4-4) were down by 12 with 10:36 remaining when Thibodeau inserted Randle into the game and kept Toppin on the floor. The Knicks proceeded to outscore the 76ers by 16 over the next 10 minutes, capped by a Jalen Brunson three-point play with 1:05 left that gave them a four-point lead.
Toppin scored 10 points in that stretch, 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 — though none in the fourth quarter — and he hit four clutch free throws in the final 24.1 seconds.
Thibodeau opting to play Randle and Toppin together did come as a surprise. He rarely has gone to them in the same lineup, because he believes it hurts the Knicks more than it helps them. The two shared the floor for only 101 minutes all of last season. Brunson said they rarely even practice 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 strong 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 plays [on which] we got easy baskets because of the way we ran the floor,” Thibodeau said. “A lot of times it was one guy sprinting the floor, pulling people with him, opening it up for 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 only managed four points in the final quarter as he was hounded by Cam Reddish (11 points, plus-19 in 15 minutes).
The 76ers did have chances in the final minute. Maxey and De’Anthony Melton each missed a 3-pointer that would’ve put them ahead, as the Knicks flipped the script from their previous two games when they blew significant leads.
“Big time,” Brunson said. “We were able to fight back and kind of just stick together. We just found a way.”