Denver coach Michael Malone retold his favorite anecdote about Tom Thibodeau before his Nuggets gave his good friend a jarring reminder of what the slumping New York Knicks have been missing.
“The thing that jumps to mind is when Thibs was just to be a Summer League coach. [The NBA] used to have a famous Summer League, before they moved to [Las] Vegas, it used to be in Boston and we used to practiced at the Westchester Civic Center. Then I remember looking at Don Chaney with iced pack on his knees, this used to be before our practices,” said Malone with a chuckle.
“So it was tough on the players but it was also tough on the coaches. So, Thibs is long been known for his hard work, his attention to detail, and obviously his ability, especially on the defensive end, to coach at a high level. I think Thibs is a hell of a coach.”
On a Saturday matinee at the Garden, the hard work, the attention to detail, the high-level defense were all missing in the Knicks’ disheartening 113-99 loss to the Denver Nuggets. It was the Knicks’ third straight loss. They are now below .500 for the first time this season that started with a feel-good 5-1 record and inflated expectation.
The final score didn’t tell the whole story as the Knicks fell by as many as 30 points in the second half and received boos from the sellout crowd of 18, 272 that had Nikola Jokic wonder if that was normal in New York.
Jokic only needed three quarters to register MVP numbers — 32 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists — as the Nuggets’ unicorn picked and popped the Knicks’ lackadaisical defense.
“I like something here. I don’t know what it is,” Jokic said postgame.
Perhaps the passionate New York crowd, the Garden spotlight that evokes Broadway feel, or maybe a Mitchell Robinson who is still working his way up to a tip-top shape brought out Jokic’s best. Despite the Nuggets missing several key players, the reigning NBA MVP had plenty of help.
Already without Jamal Murray ( ACL injury), Michael Porter Jr. (back injury) and PJ Dozier (ACL injury), Bones Hyland, Bol Bol, and former Knick Austin Rivers entered the health and safety protocols earlier this week.
Seldom-used Zeke Nnaji added his name to the long list of players who routinely turned the Garden floor into their highlight stage with 21 points on 5 of 9 threes in 34 minutes, all career-highs, after averaging just 6.8 points this season. The injury-ravaged Nuggets did not look like the team that lost seven of their last eight games before arriving in New York.Â
“The biggest thing is probably our defensive communication isn’t great right now,” Julius Randle offered. “We have to talk more, obviously, game plan discipline and listen to each other when we’re out there. But we gotta go home and really took a long look in the mirror and just see how we’re gonna change it.”
“We know we can do it. We’ve done it. But we’re in a funk right now. And it’s hard, it’s tough, it’s not fun. We have the ability and power to change it and it’s really going up to us if we want to.”
Thibodeau gave the Knicks a day off Sunday to take a long hard look at the mirror and search for answers after they sleepwalked into the matinee game. With the Nuggets’ injury woes and losing slump, this game was supposed to be the easiest of their tough schedule in the past two weeks. They put forth their worst effort.Â
Randle’s acknowledgment that they’re in a funk right now is an understatement.
The 35-year old Jeff Green’s chase-down block on 22-year old Immanuel Quickley’s fastbreak layup with the Nuggets up by 23 in the second half was the perfect encapsulation of the Knicks’ effort or lack of it on Saturday.
“We didn’t do a lot of contact [practice] because of the early game [Saturday] so it was more film [sessions], walkthrough script, that sort of, very limited contact,” Thibodeau revealed after Friday’s practice.
Thibodeau’s revelation confirmed Evan Fournier’s earlier claim that the Knicks aren’t practicing that much and not playing five-on-five practice anymore.
Last season, Thibodeau often preached that confidence comes from preparation. This current Knicks team, especially the starters, lacked confidence on the court. Kemba Walker’s demotion felt like a band-aid solution.
Thibodeau offered his logical thoughts on his decision-making process before shaking things up again.
“How hard are we playing? That’s the first thing you have to do because if you’re gonna change your scheme or you’re going to change your rotation,” Thibodeau said. “You want to make sure you’re looking at not one game, you’re looking at it in totality of a big enough of a sample size.”
“So I always say the first thing is the intensity part right? And then the second thing would be is the execution part right? So if the intensity is right and the execution is right and it’s not working then you change.”
The Knicks’ problems are complex, but it starts with their lack of effort. Then it snowballed and torpedoed Thibodeau’s defensive principles, which are based on packing the paint and needing multiple efforts to close out the perimeter. Their drop coverage had been punished by big men who love to pick and pop. Jokic, Nnaji, Nikola Vucevic, Myles Turner, and the list could get longer.
Randle, RJ Barrett, and Thibodeau referred to this team as different from last year. But the Knicks hardly made changes to the lineup, basically bringing the same team from last season with Fournier, now the only new player in the rotation after Walker’s banishment. The front office hoped for the continuity to become an advantage this season. But so far, it has become the opposite.
Too much familiarity. Too much comfort.
“We’re going to win games with our defense,” Randle said. “That’s who we are. We’re not the superstars, three, four superstars on the team like Brooklyn or all these other teams. We’re a team. How we were last year, how we have to be this year as well, we have to win games with our defense.”
Every after loss, the Knicks players talked about what they needed to do. But every time they have one solid game, they slide back to their bad habits that die hard.
“Where does intensity come from? It comes from maximum effort and maximum concentration. So, we got to put those two things together,” Thibodeau mused after losing to Malone and the Nuggets.
“We have to get our edge back defensively. It starts there. Get the hard part fixed and then we got into it together, we got to get it out together. So we have to fix the effort part and then we got to go from there.”
Thibodeau plans to keep the status quo but indicated that he would not hesitate to make another change if the problem persists. He had been loyal to a fault.
“That’s the thing,” Thibodeau said, “I like our group. I like the way they approach it. We all put our stuff together and we gotta focus together and work our way out of it together. That’s the way it is.”
But no matter what tweaks they do with the rotation or schemes, it all comes back to what Barrett said on how he plans to get out of his shooting funk that, in turn, may help the Knicks right the ship: “Go back to basics.”
“Just the little details. It takes a certain level of focus and intensity like coach [Thibs] tells us and we have to commit to it,” Randle said.
Last season’s Knicks team played with high-level intensity, hunger, and mental focus, perhaps aided by the absence of the crowd and lack of social activities. They all came together and only did basketball.
They lived the Thibodeau way.
On Saturday, Malone’s visit to the Garden reminded Thibodeau of who he used to be as a coach and how the Knicks should play.
“Right now, we’re out of sorts and we gotta get back in,” Thibodeau said. “So just get into the gym. Let’s put our work in. Let’s fix it. That’s all I want our guys want to be thinking about.”
It’s time for Thibodeau to revisit his old ways. Make the Knicks comfortable being uncomfortable again.Â
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