Amid Knicks’ struggles, Tom Thibodeau stays positive: It’s a long season

New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau
Jan 13, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts as he coaches against the Brooklyn Nets during the first quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

A recent slide has dimmed the glow of the New York Knicks‘ 5-1 start.

Losers of three of their last four games, the Knicks’ celebrated offseason moves are now being questioned. Julius Randle, who rose to become the new King of New York last season, is getting vilified like it’s 2019 all over again. The Knicks’ reloaded starting lineup has raised more questions than answers.

For two straight games, their starters struggled to show any semblance of cohesion. After they teased with a dazzling start in Charlotte, they regressed as the game progressed.

Thibodeau, who lost his cool following their meltdown against the defending champion but shorthanded Milwaukee Bucks last Wednesday, refused to point fingers this time.

“It’s not a one-person thing,” Thibodeau said when a reporter asked what’s going on with Randle. “It’s our group. We gotta function well together as a group and so we gotta bring the best out in each other. So, everyone has the responsibility to execute, to share the ball, to be in the right spots. That’s what we have to do. When we do that, we’re very good on offense.”

Except for his yeoman’s job in Philadelphia, Randle had underperformed in the Knicks’ last three losses. In those games, Randle averaged only 15.0 points on a 36/29/55 shooting split. His other numbers are also down — 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists against 3.3 turnovers.

But it’s not only Randle.

There’s also the $78-million man Evan Fournier, who asked for more ball movement after struggling to get rhythm shots in the Knicks’ current slide. Through seven games in November, the Frenchman is only averaging 9.1 points on a 39/23/73 shooting split.

RJ Barrett has cooled off, too, after a string of five 20-plus point games. His sudden downward trend has hurt the Knicks most in their last three losses. He didn’t even reach double-digit scoring in those games and averaged just 5.7 points on an atrocious 23 percent shooting, including going 1 for 11 from downtown.

“It’s a long season, players go through these [struggles],” Thibodeau said. “I’m a big believer in being mentally tough when you face adversity. So, oftentimes, ‘hey look you just got to work your way through it. You never know when it’s going to change in the next play.’ But get back to the hustle part of it. Usually, that’s what gets you going.”

When they are not shooting well, Thibodeau again implores his struggling players to do the other things that contribute to winning: “rebounding, making plays, sharing the ball, screening, moving without the ball, cutting hard, whatever it might be.”

“We can’t get wrapped up in personal dilemmas,” Thibodeau said. “It’s a team game.”

What the Knicks starters are lacking, their bench had plenty of it.

Derrick Rose remains steady. Immanuel Quickley is finally emerging from early-season shooting woes. Obi Toppin continues his giant sophomore leap. Alec Burks is quietly putting together another solid season. Taj Gibson is an ageless wonder. Nerlens Noel, when healthy, is among the league’s top defensive big men.

Together, they have been a bundle of energy. The second unit has sparked joy among Knicks fans as they have inspired several comebacks from double-digit deficits.

“There are plays in which that they were generated from great hustle and I think when you get those plays, they unite and inspire your own team. And so, that’s how we got going with the bench in the third quarter,” Thibodeau said referring to the Knicks’ bench overhauling an 11-point Hornets deficit to grab the lead midway in the fourth quarter.

“When they started hustling and getting deflections and getting stops and we got into the open floor, then we started feeling good and we started playing well. That’s what we need to do.”

Thibodeau still believes his starters can figure this out together. After all, their second unit did not become this cohesively good overnight.

As one wise man once said, “It’s a long season.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo