Tom Thibodeau shifts Knicks’ focus to development as play-in chances dwindle

The New York Knicks‘ longest road trip of the season ended in a heartbreaking fashion — a 110-107 loss to crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets Sunday on a nationally televised game. But the Nets needed Kevin Durant to play 43 minutes and dropped a season-high 53 points to fend off the hard-luck but hard-fighting Knicks.

Durant found a way to escape the Knicks’ blitzing defense to drill the go-ahead triple with 56 seconds remaining. A costly Evan Fournier turnover and an RJ Barrett botched attempt to miss a free throw for a chance to grab an offensive rebound killed their hopes of an upset.

“We had a lot of things going against us. I was proud of the way we fought,” New York coach Thibodeau said. “It came down to basically one possession.”

In the end, the Nets had arguably the best player in the world to close out the game. The Knicks don’t even have a top-20 player to lean on.

Despite the loss that dropped them four games outside the play-in tournament and 3-4 overall in their seven-game road trip, Thibodeau saw encouraging signs that the team is now heading in the right direction.

“I just want us to keep improving. I think the wins will come if we’re doing the right things and we keep getting better,” Thibodeau said.

During the trip, the Knicks built and blew a 16-point lead in Philadelphia, a 14-point lead in Phoenix, and a 15-point lead in Memphis. Their inability to close out games could be blamed on not having someone like Durant. The Knicks’ feel-good run to the playoffs last season has inflated the expectations from a relatively young team.

Unlike last season, Thibodeau now doesn’t have the luxury of having Derrick Rose and Nerlens Noel off the bench. He has no choice but to rely on the young players more at this point of the season where the stakes are higher.

Only Alec Burks, Taj Gibson, and Evan Fournier are considered grizzled veterans with a combined 108 playoff games. Julius Randle is only 27 and only had his first trip to the playoffs last season. The rest of the rotation is composed of players aged 24 and under.

The coach who wants to win at all costs has been singing a different tune nowadays.

“We’re playing a lot of young guys, so you’re going to have some mistakes along the way. That’s all part of learning. As long as we’re playing hard and we’re playing unselfishly, this trip was good for us in many ways because when you’re playing against quality teams, it makes you play better, and then it shows you the things that we have to improve upon,” Thibodeau said.

“So that’s where I want the focus to lie. Just keep getting better, come in, and give everything you have to the team. We’re very shorthanded, so our margin of error is small, but the byproduct of guys being out is other guys are getting an opportunity.”

Against the Nets, the 22-year old rookie center Jericho Sims provided the silver lining. Sims, the 58th overall selection, played his best game of the season. He finished with six points, 10 rebounds, two assists, and one blocked shot. Most importantly, he was a game-high plus-20 when he was on the floor for 23 minutes.

Thibodeau was so pleased to let Sims play most of the fourth quarter until the final 13.4 seconds. Sims’ activity had helped slow down Durant when the Knicks made a 9-0 run to grab a 103-101 lead with 2:52 remaining.

Thibodeau used Sims’ length and speed to blitz Durant in 10 straight possessions, which almost took the Knicks home.

Sims’ biggest play came in the final 1:30 when he forced Durant to give up the ball and sprinted back to the middle to force James Johnson to miss a layup. Randle scored on a dunk to cut the Nets’ lead to one, 106-105 after Durant shattered the 103-deadlock with the go-ahead triple off a broken play.

Sims gave the Knicks a golden chance to steal the win when he sprinted back to corral the defensive rebound off a Durant miss after blitzing the Nets superstar anew.

“I thought Jericho gave us great energy. He’s big, and he’s a hard guy to throw over. That was good for us, and he’s got a lot of energy. So, he can get out there to trap and then get back to the basket and give us protection at the rim,” Thibodeau said. “On offense, he’s still a work in progress. He’s got to help us execute. He’s got to understand what we’re trying to get done.”

Thibodeau inserted back Mitchell Robinson, who had seven points, five rebounds, and four blocks, as one of the offensive options in the pivotal play. But Fournier’s pass from the corner to a wide-open Robinson was deflected by Bruce Brown, sealing the game’s outcome.

Mathematically, the Knicks still have a chance to gatecrash the play-in tournament with 14 games left. They now have the eighth easiest schedule while the two teams in front of them — Hornets and Washington Wizards — have the 16th and 15th toughest assignments remaining.

But even if they fall short, the growth of the Knicks’ young players, particularly Sims, would come in handy if Robinson decides to take his ‘monster blockness’ act somewhere else.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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