It’s just the first preseason game, but the New York Knicks treated it like a regular-season game in a true Tom Thibodeau fashion.
Thibodeau scowled and bemoaned on the sidelines despite the Knicks rolling past a hapless Indiana Pacers team, 125-104, Tuesday night at the Garden.
It set the tone for the upcoming season that comes with a heavy expectation.
After the New York Knicks gave up an offensive rebound that led to a Jeremy Lamb three-pointer cutting their lead to a single-digit, Thibodeau was livid and called a timeout with 1:43 left in the second quarter.
“The thing is it’s early on but it was a mental mistake,” Thibodeau later said. “And so I think it’s important to correct those things. And no one’s gonna be perfect. We’ll make mistakes. If we hustle, we’ll cover up for that but when you make the same mistakes twice, we can’t allow that to keep going. So we want to fix it.”
It was the kind of hard coaching and culture-setting that propelled the Knicks to a surprising playoff run last season. But this year, they will no longer be operating under the radar, not after plugging their holes with four-time All-Star in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, France national team’s leading scorer in the recent Tokyo Olympics.
The new Knicks backcourt quickly settled in and played well as advertised. Walker and Fournier supplied the early firepower when the Knicks seized control in the opening quarter.
The Pacers scored the first four points of the game. But once Walker, a Bronx native, felt right at home, there was no stopping the Knicks.
The 31-year old Walker signed with the Knicks on a bargain $18 million, two-year deal after securing a buyout from Oklahoma City Thunder. A sparse but loud Garden crowd welcomed him with a standing ovation during his introduction.
Walker responded by buckling down to work early in the game. He countered the Pacers’ early 4-0 burst with his first unofficial basket as a Knick — a shifty drive against last season’s shot block leader Myles Turner.
Walker added a stepback jumper and set up RJ Barrett for a wide-open three-pointer in a Knicks’ 10-0 run that broke the game wide open. Fournier had nine points and the new Knicks backcourt tandem combined for 13 of the Knicks’ 36 points in the first quarter.
“It was a pretty unreal feeling, to be honest,” Walker said after the game. “When I first arrived, I was like ‘wow I’m really just back home.’ It came full circle where everything started. It was a surreal feeling but a great feeling. I’m really, really happy to be here.”
Walker started to carve his name in basketball in this arena, starring for Rice High School. He stamped his signature on the Garden floor with his Cardiac Kemba moment that fueled UConn to the Big East title and a national championship in 2011.
Along the way to his stardom, Walker upset Derrick Rose and his Simeon High School team in 2007. More than a decade later, they found themselves playing on the same side, chasing the elusive NBA championship to complete their decorated resumes. Against the Pacers, they alternately led the Knicks’ attack, finding gaps on their opponents’ porous defense.
They led by as many as 27 points.
Then the Knicks momentarily stopped playing. But Thibodeau didn’t stop coaching.
“I didn’t like our defense at the end of the third [quarter],” Thibodeau said.
The Pacers went on a mini-run, cutting the Knicks’ huge lead to 21, 101-80, heading into the final quarter.
“We’ll take a hard look at that. We have to strive to be a 48-minute team and we’re nowhere near that right now. And conditioning is a big part of that.”
The Knicks played without their top two centers. Mitchell Robinson has yet to be cleared to do contact drills six months after his surgery to repair a broken foot. Nerlens Noel was listed out with a sore left knee. But Thibodeau explained before the game that Noel just took a rest and will be available next game. The plan is to rest one rotation player in every preseason game.
It turned out the Knicks were fine despite facing the formidable tandem of Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
The 36-year old Taj Gibson sprang out with youthful zest as a starter. Then rookie Jericho Sims jumped out from the end of the bench.
Gibson, a Brooklyn native, stuffed the stat sheet with 14 points, six rebounds, three assists, one block, and a team-best 22 plus-minus. Sims, the 58th overall pick, added eight and six rebounds in a backup role while soaking up learnings from Thibodeau’s tongue lashing. A couple of defensive lapses caught Thibodeau’s ire. But the rookie center responded well.
“It’s a good first step. But we have to understand what this is. This is the preseason. But every time they throw it up, it’s important to compete and establish how are we gonna compete,” Thibodeau reminded.
There was more good stuff to unpack in the Knicks’ preseason debut.
All of their starters finished in double figures — the first sign that their offseason moves will be a boon this season.
Fournier was aggressive from the start hunting for his shots. He scored 14 points, mostly on drives off the dribble that drew fouls. He was 5-for-6 from the free-throw line.
RJ Barrett had a quiet but efficient 17 points, three rebounds, and two assists. He popped up for 3-of-6 three-pointers and shot 7-of-14 overall as he benefited from the much-improved spacing and added playmaking to the starting unit.
Thibodeau said he was pleased to see Barrett in the gym the previous night, signifying that the Canadian wing is back to his routine.
Julius Randle didn’t force the action early on, allowing Walker and Fournier to get settled first. After a quiet 10 points in the first half, he exploded for another 10 in the third quarter before being taken out for good. Curiously, Randle scored his final seven points with Walker on the bench.
Walker had taken the ball out of Randle’s hands, unlike last year when Randle doubled as the lead playmaker and shotmaker by default in the first unit. The Knicks relied heavily on him in isolation to create plays that came back to haunt them in the playoffs.
This time, there will be multiple players to ease the pressure.
Walker said it’s just the preseason. They’re still in the getting-to-know-each-other stage.
“Right now, it’s just the time to get into the rhythm and the flow. Just being out there with my teammates. Get to know those guys, their tendencies, and things of that nature. Get a feel of each other,” Walker said.
If this was just a glimpse of their potential, then their ceiling is much higher than what the Las Vegas oddsmakers thought.
Walker dazzled his way to 12 points, on 5-for-10 shooting, four rebounds, and three assists in 21 minutes showing no ill effects of the knee issues that hounded him in Boston.
Thibodeau lauded him for coming in and setting the tone.
“The game tells you what to do,” Thibodeau said. “And I think he reads the game extremely well. That veteran leadership, shotmaking ability, he’s very good at pick and roll. He puts a lot of pressure on you. And he’s unselfish.”
“If he gets blitzed, he’s gonna get off the ball. He’s not gonna fight the pressure with pressure. I thought we made the extra pass out of the blitz pretty effectively.”
The Knicks flaunted their new firepower sinking 46.5 percent from the field on 26 assists.
They pushed the pace and played with a lot of space but took care of the ball with more precision in their execution. Committing just three turnovers in 48 minutes would attest to that.
With Walker and Rose leading both units, they leaked out when there was an opportunity. The Knicks racked up 15 fastbreak points, six more than their league-worst 8.9 per game last season. It was a lot closer to the league-leading 17.6 transition points generated by Memphis Grizzlies.
It’s a by-product of having more capable playmakers in both the starting and second units.
“I don’t get wrapped up in pace. I’m concerned with us winning. So I want us to be strong on both sides of the ball,” Thibodeau said.
“There’s a lot of different ways to go. It’s just like taking the three. I want to take more threes but I want them to be the right threes. We talked about that in our first team meeting — how are we going to generate the threes that we wanted and to have a balance to get into the paint and spray it out and make good rim reads.”
With more space and ball movement, the Knicks generated 37 three-point shots and hit 11 of them. The number of attempts was just right on their (37-40 range) target.
On the flip side, the Knicks relentlessly attacked the Pacers’ interior defense and came away with 56 points inside the paint, 16 more than the Pacers had.
As much as their offense was popping all night, their defense was on par with the standard they set last season. They forced the Pacers to commit 16 turnovers and held them to 41.3 percent, worse than their league-leading 44-percent field goal shooting allowed last season. The Pacers’ 104 total points were right on their sweet spot. Last season, the Knicks limited their opponents to a league-best 104.7 points per game.
Their much-balanced offense overflowed though it was just a preseason game.
Seven Knicks players ended up in double figures, with second-year players Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin adding 10 each off the bench.
Quickley grabbed six rebounds and issued a game-high seven assists though the bulk came in garbage time. Rose and Alec Burks combined for 16 points and five assists.
It was Toppin who generated the most buzz among the reserves.
Toppin moved with more confidence and fluidity. The Knicks’ 2020 lottery pick scored on transition dunks and around the basket. But his most electrifying bucket wasn’t the one he made above the rim. It was a spin move to the basket off a nasty crossover.
Kevin Knox put the cherry on top of their preseason-opening win with two successive attacks in the paint in the final moments of the game, signaling the shift in his mindset as he desperately fights for minutes in the last year of his rookie deal.
It was a total masterclass from a deep Knicks team that is getting slept on once again.
In the annual NBA general managers survey, the Knicks did not receive any vote to duplicate or surpass their top-four finish in the East. Seven teams, including the Pacers, received votes and were ranked ahead of them.
“I could care less. Most GMs never played basketball. Let’s be real,” Walker said in response. “Who cares what they think. I could care less. We believe in ourselves. We’re gonna play so hard every night. And that’s gonna give us a chance to win every night.”
It’s a Thibodeau tenet that was on full display Tuesday.
There’s no such thing as fake games to Thibodeau. He demands the best effort in every game as they strive to become a 48-minute team and move closer to true contention.
When Thibodeau called that timeout with 1:43 left in the second quarter, he was disappointed with the dispirited effort. Then he reminded his team of their goal.
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