The New York Knicks are better off losing all their remaining games to increase their Draft Lottery odds. But don’t tell that to Tom Thibodeau, who doesn’t have ‘tanking’ in his vocabulary. Instead, he’s still searching for ways to win games at the end of a season filled with disappointments and shortcomings.
To him, every game still matters. There are no meaningless games as he approaches their final games to build on what he views as the team’s growth since the All-Star break.
After the Knicks trounced the league’s worst team, Orlando Magic, by 30 points last Sunday, a reporter asked what Thibodeau is looking for in terms of his lineup and rotation decisions that have become a sticking issue among the Knicks fan base on social media.
The two-time NBA Coach of the Year’s response was a window into his perspective and his reluctance to hand the keys to the Knicks’ young core on a silver platter.
“There’s always something that you could be working on, and it’s not about like everyone thinks, ‘oh, give this guy minutes, give that [guy],’ no, it’s not about that,” Thibodeau said. “It’s about making the team function well.”
“So, when you’re out there, can you execute? So, if someone’s running a stack pick and roll, does everyone understand all the details of that play? And who’s responsible for what? And that’s what I want to see. Do you understand what your job is? Because to guard players in this league, everyone has to be tied together. It’s not one-on-one. It’s not like you against somebody else. It’s the team.”
Thibodeau’s reputation was under attack for giving token minutes to the Knicks’ recent draft picks and favoring his veterans for much of the season. An issue that was exacerbated by heartbreaking losses and meltdowns. But even as the Knicks already got eliminated, the defensive guru that he is, Thibodeau is sticking to his game plan and principles.
“And then you have star players that are going to command two being on them. Do you understand your responsibilities? So, if there’s one guy that doesn’t do their job, you could give up a layup or a wide-open three. And sometimes you could do it perfectly, and they still can make,” Thibodeau said.
“So, can you execute a play? Coming out of a timeout, can you remember all the details of the play? And then, do you understand what the counters are? So, that’s what I’m looking for. So, when you get into games that are intense and that are tight, can you execute?”
During his first year, which led to a surprising playoff run, the Knicks had the top-four defense in the league (107.8 defensive rating). Thibodeau coached the Knicks on strings with rookies and unheralded players around his top guns, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett. But this season, the Knicks’ defense suffered despite the arrival of more talented players in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, essentially replacing Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock. As the Knicks head to their final three games, their defensive rating is ranked just outside the top-10, allowing 110.5 per 100 possessions, which is good for 11th in the league.
It didn’t help that the Eastern Conference has gotten stronger and deeper. And worse, the Knicks had significant injuries on key veterans (Nerlens Noel and Derrick Rose) that helped them last season. Thibodeau’s second season at the helm was a challenge. He reached deep and discovered that rookie Quentin Grimes could be a reliable rotation player. Then Obi Toppin, the Knicks’ former lottery pick, has been balling out since Randle was shut down for the remainder of the season due to a lingering sore quad.
Toppin has scored back-to-back career-high 20 points over his last two games, shooting better with more minutes to get into a rhythm on top of his usual burst of energy and speed to run the floor.
“So, we got a lot of young guys that are getting better every day. So, the older guys are getting the same thing with them. They’re being challenged in a different way. So, OB gave us really good minutes [against Orlando], too. So, we had a number of guys — it was good to get Quentin (Grimes) and Deuce (McBride) back out there. I thought [against Cleveland], Arch (Ryan Arcidiacono) gave us — the one guy that played really hard and really well,” said Thibodeau moments after raving about Immanuel Quickley’s triple-double performance.
The Knicks’ kids have three more games to show Thibodeau that they can be trusted with bigger roles. It will be crucial as the front office, heading into their third offseason, has tough decisions to make.
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