New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, as dogmatic as he is, has a knack of stumbling into something out of the rubble. Maybe not by choice, but by his design.
Midway through this seemingly lost season, he found a solid rotation piece in rookie Quentin Grimes after the team got decimated by COVID-19. Now he’s finding out their two-way rookie Jericho Sims is a serviceable backup big as Taj Gibson and Nerlens Noel remain out. Then on Sunday, as the Knicks snapped a seven-game funk, he stumbled into a young lineup that blitzed and ran the Los Angeles Clippers to the ground in a 116-93 win on the road.
Next to his regular post-Kemba Walker shutdown, starting five of Alec Burks, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson, Thibodeau did the unthinkable. He rolled out uber-young lineups consisting of players 23 years old and under.
His most effective lineups against the Clippers were Immanuel Quickley, Miles McBride, Barrett, Cam Reddish, with Jericho Sims and Robinson alternating at the center.
Thibodeau finally let the kids play. Together.
And the result, even for fleeting, small sample size, could be a window to the Knicks’ future.
The Knicks outscored the Clippers by 20 using the Quickley, McBride, Barrett, Reddish, and Sims lineup in 7.3 minutes, according to NBA’s advanced data. Swap Sims with Robinson, and the Knicks still outscored the Clippers by 10 in 4.3 minutes.
Those groups started the Knicks’ breakaway in the first half and finished the job at the start of the fourth quarter.
Reddish dropped 15 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, including eight of the Knicks’ first 10 points in a 10-0 start that forced Clippers coach Tyronn Lue to empty his bench.
“I thought the ball pressure was really good — getting around screens. It allowed us to do some switching. When they downsized, we also had a stretch where Julius (Randle) had to fight with that group as well. And I thought he did a really good job when he was at the five. So it allowed us to do some switching all those guys can guard their position,” Thibodeau told reporters after the emphatic win.
True enough, their third most compelling lineup of the night was having Randle play small-ball center alongside Burks, Fournier, Barrett, and Reddish. That group outscored the Clippers by eight in 2.6 minutes.
But the biggest story is their young players.
Barrett has grown into a leader not only because he’s led them in scoring with 24, his fifth straight game scoring 20 or more. Before the fourth quarter began, he huddled the team. They responded with that huge run to avoid another disastrous collapse after the Clipper cut their 26-point lead to 12.
Reddish has flourished in the absence of Grimes and Obi Toppin. His 17 points against the Clippers represented his highest-scoring game in a Knicks uniform. Like how Grimes clawed and scratched his way into the regular rotation, Reddish proves his worth on both ends of the floor using his length and athleticism.
Quickley is starting to figure out things on his own as Derrick Rose continues to miss time. He commanded the Knicks offense with 21 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists in quickly the most complete game in his young career.
Sims’ bounce and activity at the rim are giving the Knicks a backup plan in case Robinson jettisons in the offseason. Robinson had outplayed De’Andre Ayton and Ivica Zubac in back-to-back games in what is shaping out to be a pay-me-or-else stance in the Knicks’ remaining games.
McBride’s G League experience and superb on-ball pressure defense are starting to translate.
Despite the win that snapped their seven-game funk, their chances of landing the top overall pick in the next draft are still bigger than their playoffs hopes. They are 5.5 games out of the play-in tournament and have a 0.5 percent chance of making it to the playoffs, while they have 4.5 percent of landing the jackpot in the lottery. That could increase if they tank.
But no thanks, said the Knicks young players on Sunday night.
Thibodeau’s next-man-up challenge and accountability had made them hungry for minutes. And they made sure they left Thibodeau in a deeper conundrum than he already was after the big win over a solid Clippers team regular rotation be damned.
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