Mitchell Robinson already had fouled out when Taj Gibson also was assessed his sixth foul with three minutes remaining Tuesday night at the Garden.
Almost immediately, the home crowd began loudly chanting Obi Toppin’s first name.
Boos quickly rained down, however, when Tom Thibodeau instead called for Alec Burks to come off the bench, essentially choosing to employ a lineup of four guards and wing players — Burks, Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier and RJ Barrett — around power forward Julius Randle.
Such has been the slide back to the periphery in recent games for Toppin since he logged a career-high 45 minutes — and matched a season-best with 19 points — with Randle out of the lineup on Jan. 2 in Toronto.
The 2020 lottery pick has averaged just 11.3 minutes over his past eight appearances, including just nine in Thursday’s late-developing loss to the Timberwolves.
The hometown crowd had erupted when Toppin snared an offense rebound of Barrett’s missed 3-point attempt for a put-back bucket in the second quarter. The second-year forward also sank two free throws in seven minutes before halftime, but those marked his only four points for the game.
The Brooklyn native’s stint in the second half was even shorter, playing only the first 1:53 of the fourth quarter before Randle came back following a brief rest.
The 23-year-old Toppin didn’t get off the bench thereafter, with Thibodeau opting to have Burks on the court in the closing minutes instead of Toppin or another big body, such as rookie center Jericho Sims.
Thibodeau’s small-ball alignment didn’t work at either end of the floor down the stretch of the giveaway loss, with Randle fouling Minnesota big man Karl-Anthony Towns for a go-ahead drive and free-throw conversion with 29.3 seconds remaining.
“Julius stepped in and played center, so next guy in, get the job done,” Thibodeau said after the game. “It’s a hard-fought game. We didn’t get it done down the stretch.”
Indeed, the Knicks also didn’t connect on any field-goal attempts over the final 3:41 while committing three turnovers — two by Barrett and one by Fournier — in the final two minutes. Randle also missed one of two free throws with a chance to tie the score five seconds after Towns’ go-ahead score.
“Well, I think a big part of our turnovers late was because we had four guards, and so we had either myself, RJ or [Burks] playing the 4, which we never do,” Fournier said. “So when you’re playing against a team that’s aggressive, that’s basically when you need space the most.
“You can just go pass-pass and take advantage of that, but when you’re supposed to play at a position that you never did, it can be a little tricky.”
Randle wasn’t made available to the media after the game, a more regular occurrence since he was fined for directing a thumbs-down and “shut the f–k up” explanation at the Garden fans on Jan. 6. The Knicks (22-23) also held no practice nor media availability on Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s home game against the Pelicans.
Thibodeau noted Tuesday night that the players need to understand that the game often is played and officiated differently down the stretch of close games and that they needed to take better care of the ball during the sloppy final minutes of their second straight loss at the Garden.
“Coach is right. We have to do a better job with the ball,” Fournier added. “It’s too important. We have to get a good shot and our execution could have been better down the stretch, 100 percent.”