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After a nine-month layoff, the new-look New York Knicks gave an early glimpse of the Tom Thibodeau era in their first preseason game.

Josh Benjamin

On Friday night, the New York Knicks played for the first time since March 11.

Even against the lowly Detroit Pistons, the rust was present. The Knicks came out stumbling before finding a groove.

Soon, however, the tides turned.

The Knicks suddenly found themselves in a rhythm. Passes were cleaner and communication clearer. It was almost as if everyone remembered there was a gameplan to be followed.

Don’t get me wrong — the Knicks will not be a good team this year. They’re still a young squad undergoing yet another makeover. Furthermore, despite playing in the league’s largest media market, they employ no star power.

Still, Tom Thibodeau’s first game as Knicks coach sent a message. This New York team has a long-term goal. It’s not about wins and losses right now, but playing at a high level and holding each other accountable. Thibodeau was his usual fiery self, even in a preseason matchup.

Throw in the first look at the Knicks’ exciting rookies, and the commencement to the preseason gave a strong idea of what to expect this year.

Obi the Top

Obi Toppin made his NBA debut after the Knicks selected him at No. 8 overall in last month’s draft. The dominant dunking forward was advertised, dominating the low post with poise and confidence. In 20 minutes, Toppin scored 11 points and pulled down seven rebounds.

However, the Knicks’ much-heralded draft pick did not start in New York’s 90-84 victory. He saw all of his action off the bench, and will probably continue to do so for the time being. Toppin also missed both his attempts from long range, pushing his shooting on the night to 4-of-9 from the floor.

Just the same, Toppin proved he’ll be a special talent in the NBA. On top of his scoring, he showed no hesitation passing the ball rather than trying to force a shot. It was also clear he was working to improve his defense.

Toppin obviously won’t shoot over 63% from the field like he did for Dayton last year. However, making around 50% of his attempts is certainly possible. If he keeps this up, he’ll be starting for the Knicks in no time.

Growing pains

Even in victory, the Knicks still showed they’re very much a young team trying to put it all together. Remember how I previously said Thibodeau was his usual fiery self? Well, it was completely justified, because at times, the Knicks’ rust wasn’t shy about portraying itself.

Despite pulling off the win, New York committed 24 turnovers. A combined eight were committed by Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr., both of whom are competing for minutes off the bench. Elfrid Payton, who could be the team’s starting point guard on opening night, added three of his own.

It’s also worth noting the Knicks were up by 18 points early in the fourth quarter, yet the Pistons managed to trim the lead to just six with 31 seconds remaining. Win aside, New York needs to work on shoring up its fourth-quarter defense, even with a significant lead.

The good news is this was expected. The Knicks are committed to establishing a new way of doing things at Madison Square Garden. The growing pains will be hard to watch, but in time, they’ll fade away.

New identity incoming

But if there’s one thing to take away from the New York Knicks’ first preseason game, it’s that this time truly feels different. For far too long, fans have longed for a competitive team to contend for a championship and received The Toon Squad in return. Given Friday night, the Knicks are now determined to become the Monstars.

First, everyone was playing with confidence. Toppin played in his first NBA game, yet moved with the poise of a veteran. Conditioning was fantastic across the board, and even 6-foot-9, 255-pound Julius Randle flowed through the paint like butter.

RJ Barrett overcame some horrible misses early on to show renewed confidence and improved form on his mid-range jumper. Even Nerlens Noel had an extra bounce in his step and stepped up as the Knicks’ defensive anchor in the middle.

And there’s still more to come from the orange and blue. Austin Rivers, who’s already stepping up as a team leader, didn’t play because of a groin injury. Nor did rookie Immanuel Quickley, whose three-point shooting has drawn tremendous praise.

It was just one preseason game, and odds are we’ll get frustrated by the Knicks more often this year than we will cheer them. This is still a team that not only lacks a top-level star but has lots of growing up to do.

But if last night is any indication, the maturation of the Knicks is well underway.

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