Twist of Fate: Knicks gift Thibodeau victory over his former team, Timberwolves fire Saunders

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

Tom Thibodeau dodged a bullet against the league’s worst team and the last team he coached. But Ryan Saunders, the man who replaced him on the Minnesota bench, didn’t survive the night.

Thibodeau guided the New York Knicks to a narrow 103-99 victory in his first meeting against the Minnesota Timberwolves since his unceremonious exit in 2019. Then moments later, the Timberwolves announced the firing of Saunders.

The Knicks blew a 21-point lead but regained their composure just in time to avoid what could have been a disastrous loss before they welcome back fans, albeit only roughly 2,000, in The Garden on Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors.

Thibodeau lamented their lackadaisical effort to close the end of the third quarter that spilled over to the start of the fourth quarter.

“The way [Minnesota] can score the ball, they can make up ground quickly. We’re striving to be a 48-minute team. We’ve got a long way to go. Hopefully, we learn from this,” Thibodeau said.

After the Knicks erected their largest lead, 86-65, the Timberwolves went on a 31-9 run capped off by a Karl-Anthony Towns’ hook shot.

Thibodeau went to his veterans in crunchtime to save the game.

Julius Randle and Alec Burks came through with clutch free throws while Taj Gibson, who was with Thibodeau in Minnesota, made a key defensive stop against the red-hot Towns.

The Timberwolves franchise center, who resented Thibodeau’s coaching style in Minnesota, pumped in 15 points and hauled down nine rebounds in the fourth quarter while sending Knicks center Nerlens Noel to the foul limit.

He was an unstoppable force until Gibson came in to replace Noel. Gibson, who played backup to Towns in Minnesota, knew exactly how to neutralize him.

Gibson forced Towns to miss a tough turnaround shot with 23.8 seconds left and the game on the line.

Burks then iced the win with four consecutive free throws.

“First off, just understanding the pace of the game. Understanding when Noel’s last foul was called, just being mentally ready for my teammates, just trying to inspire and do what I had to do. Just not let KAT get into the middle. I’ve been around him for a good amount of time and know that he wants to go to the middle of the lane and try to shoot the running hook or a floater. I just got lucky tonight and I just tried to kind of use my body. Just fight,” Gibson said about his late-game defensive gem.

Randle put up another strong effort with only two days left before the NBA All-Star reserves announcement on Tuesday. He scored 25 points, including the go-ahead free throws in the last 32 seconds, to pace the Knicks while adding 14 rebounds and four assists.

Randle chose to stick to the positives rather than dwell on their near meltdown.

“A lot of times when you lose a lead like that and momentum shifts in such a big way — the opposite way — it’s easy to crumble and cave in and let the game go. We just kept fighting, kept battling and got stops, and made plays down the stretch when we needed to. I’m proud of our team for that,” Randle said in his postgame chat with Knicks courtside reporter Rebeca Haarlow. “Obviously not the way we wanted to do it in the end, but we got it done and that’s all that matters.”

RJ Barrett also had a strong performance after seeing his minutes dropped to mid-20s in the previous four games that included fourth-quarter benching. This time, the sophomore swingman closed the game and delivered with 21 points on 10-for-20 shooting in 34 minutes. His last basket — a tough drive — gave the Knicks a 97-96 lead with under two minutes to go.

Towns, who struggled against the Knicks’ defense in the first three quarters, finished with 27 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Timberwolves. His enormous effort was not enough to keep them from their 24th loss in 31 games, the league’s worst record.

It was the last straw for the Timberwolves who informed Saunders about his fate after the loss. According to multiple reports, the Timberwolves are set to hire Toronto Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch, who previously worked with team president Gersson Rosas in Houston.

Saunders, who was championed by Towns for his coaching style that he said suits the younger players, compiled a 43-94 record in his two-plus seasons.

However, Saunders only coached Towns and D’Angelo Russell together for only five games since the trade with Andrew Wiggins in February of 2019.

Thibodeau has since moved on and found redemption in New York. A young Knicks team has bought into his hard-nosed coaching style that catapulted them into a top-three defense in the league and continued to exceed expectations with their 15-16 record, currently seventh seed in the East.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo