Knicks’ up-and-down effort raises concern for disappointed Tom Thibodeau

Alder Almo
tom thibodeau, knicks
Oct 28, 2022; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts in the second quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

With no top-end talent, the New York Knicks have a small margin of error.

That’s how Tom Thibodeau views his team as presently constructed after missing out on three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell last summer.

Mitchell is having an MVP-caliber season with the Cavaliers while the Knicks are a middling team teetering on the brink of another trip to the lottery.

Last Sunday’s debacle — a 145-135 loss to the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder — was a gut punch after absorbing a blow to the mouth in Brooklyn two games earlier.

A Thibodeau-coached team routinely giving up more than 120 points is unheard of until this season. After the Thunder rained 17 3s on them, the Knicks are now allowing a second-worst 14.1 3s made per game on a league-worst 39.1 attempt. That amounts to more than one-third of the 116.8 points they are giving up this season, the fifth-worst in the league.

“You have to challenge shots and contain the ball better. You have to guard one on one better. There’s no easy way out of it. It requires multiple efforts. You got to guard the ball, be in, get out and challenge [shots], put a body on someone, be tied together. You have to do all those things. And you have to do it time after time.”

Tom Thibodeau postgame via NBA.com

Thibodeau had a flawed Knicks roster play on strings defensively in his first season, and they overachieved with a first-round playoff appearance. But the front office’s undoing is they added average offensive players with below-average defense and expect the team to be a perennial playoff team in a loaded Eastern Conference.

“If we’re relying on trying to outscore people that’s not going to work. Our margin of error is small. We have to play with great intensity on every possession. And when we do that, we’re very successful. We can’t get wrapped up in a free flowing game where we’re not containing the ball or we’re not challenging shots.”

Tom Thibodeau postgame via NBA.com

That bad habit has been pervasive over the Knicks’ rough start. They have beaten below .500 teams like they are supposed to, but two were close calls (Pistons and Hornets). On the flip side, they were routinely blown out by winning teams with no counter to the league’s stars and little to no resistance in the perimeter.

So the loss to the rebuilding Thunder — with a budding star in Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, who they could have drafted in 2018, and a solid lottery pick in Josh Giddey who dropped a second straight MSG triple-double — was a bitter pill to swallow.

“Alexander is a tough matchup. So is Giddey. So we got to take that challenge and you’re not guarding those guys individually. You’re guarding those guys with your team. And that’s where we fell short [Sunday].”

Tom Thibodeau postgame via NBA.com

Alexander is an elite two-way guard with a 6-11 wingspan. He bent the Knicks’ futile defense to his will with an effortless 37 points and eight assists while collecting five rebounds, three steals and two blocks on the defensive end.

Giddey, a 6-8 combo guard, joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to have a triple-double in their first two games at the iconic Madison Square Garden.

Sadly, none of the Knicks’ young players are comparable to the Thunder’s two franchise cornerstones.

RJ Barrett will command $120 million starting next year, but his inconsistency hasn’t inspired much hope, especially when Mitchell’s MVP-caliber season hangs over his head.

But that’s more of a big-picture concern for the organization. Thibodeau’s immediate worry is consistently drawing the Knicks’ best defensive effort.

“I always believe that it starts with your defensive rebounding and keeping your turnovers down, and that puts you in a position to win. We’re capable of doing better. We’ve shown times when we’ve guarded extremely well. What I’m concerned with is the up and down [effort] of the last four games.”

Tom Thibodeau postgame via NBA.com

The Knicks are no.3 in total rebounds (47.4) and offensive rebounds (12.8), while their 14.8 turnovers are right in the middle of the pack. But their defensive deficiency — sixth-worst 113.4 defensive rating –uncharacteristic of a Thibodeau-coached team, and their lack of outside shooting (second-worst 32.5% from 3) have negated that.

The alarm bells are ringing louder with every ugly loss.

Is Thibodeau losing grip of this team, or did the front office fail him?

Either way, it’s going to end ugly.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo