Motown Beatdown: Knicks seize solo fourth after routing Pistons

There was no redemption game for Dennis Smith Jr. Only a painful reminder of what he’s missing after he got traded.

The New York Knicks shackled Smith and his new team, Detroit Pistons, 109-90, Sunday night at Little Caesar’s Arena, to move up to solo fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The Knicks (18-17) are off to their best start since going 23-12 after their first 35 games in their 54-win campaign in the 2012-13 season. That also marked the last time they made the playoffs.

The Knicks are starting to look like a playoff team. They’re doing it the old-fashioned way, relying on their top-three defense that has now improved to the top two after this win.

Smith came into this game coming off his best performance of the season and shooting 53 percent from the field in his last three games. But the Knicks mercilessly showed why he became dispensable.

Smith, the Pistons’ new lead guard, rammed into the Knicks’ defensive wall and was held to just seven points on 3-of-11 shooting. The Pistons’ offense never got to hit the ground running as they shot an atrocious 38.4 percent from the field.

On the flipside, Derrick Rose, whom the Knicks acquired in exchange for Smith, continued to make an impact. New York is now 3-0 since Rose was inserted into the starting lineup.

“I think the first unit has really found good chemistry together. They’re reading the game well. They’re feeding off each other. They’re playing very unselfishly and are tied together on both ends of the floor,” Tom Thibodeau said.

Rose had 14 points and five assists, while Julius Randle overwhelmed the Pistons frontcourt with 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting. The Knicks’ All-Star added eight rebounds, six assists, two steals, and one block in another masterclass.

RJ Barrett also imposed his will. The sophomore swingman has collected his second straight 20-plus point game, dropping 25 points on efficient 8-of-13 shooting. He added five rebounds and three assists.

Nerlens Noel, the only remaining true center in the Knicks’ lineup, continued to hold the fort. He was all over the court (8 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, three steals, and three blocks). The Knicks even grabbed more defensive rebounds than the Pistons, 35-33.

Alec Burks and Immanuel Quickley combined for 28 points off the bench.

Despite missing several key players — Elfrid Payton (sore right hamstring), Mitchell Robinson (broken right hand), and Taj Gibson (left ankle sprain) — the Knicks were no match to the Pistons.

After Jerami Grant opened the game with a triple, the Knicks took control then blow them out after the halftime break.

With only two games left, the Knicks have a shot of going to the All-Star break with a winning record.

They will try to move two games above .500 against San Antonio Spurs on the road on Tuesday before winding up their first-half schedule with a rematch against the Pistons at home on Thursday.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Frank Four The Win: Knicks reach .500, tie Raptors at No. 4

New York Knicks, Frank Ntilikina

Julius Randle won the duel of NBA All-Star forwards, then Frank Ntilikina stole the thunder in the end.

The seldom-used French guard completed a steal with 4.7 seconds left, then buried two pressure-packed free throws that preserved Randle’s big game and lifted the New York Knicks to a 110-107 win over the Indiana Pacers Saturday night at the Madison Square Garden.

The come-from-behind win at the start of a back-to-back schedule pushed the Knicks to .500 and tied the Toronto Raptors (17-17) for the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference.

“We didn’t start the game well. It was funky. We have to work our way through. It was a long game. But the most important thing is we found a way to win in the end,” Tom Thibodeau said. “A lot of people stepped up and made big plays.”

One of them was Randle, who delivered big on both ends.

The first-time All-Star finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, and four steals. It was Randle’s ninth game with a 25-10-5 stats line this season, tied for the second-most in a season in Knicks history, according to Elias Sports BureauElias Sports Bureau. Bob McAdoo holds the record with 15 during the 1977-78 season.

But more than closing in on the franchise record, Randle helped the Knicks won the regular-season series against Indiana by locking up fellow All-Star Domantas Sabonis.

Sabonis was held down below his average (21.6 points and 11.5 rebounds) and could only cough up 15 and 7 against five turnovers in 37 minutes.

With Sabonis frustrated, former Knicks Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott carried the Pacers’ offense and combined for 33 points through the first three quarters. Then the Knicks defense held them scoreless the rest of the way.

But the Pacers stretched Thibodeau’s thinning rotation in this game.

Two nights after the Knicks scored a season-high 140 points, they found themselves staring at an 8-0 hole at the start. The Pacers extended it to 16.

To compound the Knicks woes, they lost Taj Gibson to an ankle injury, leaving them with only Nerlens Noel as their lone big man.

“Next man up. We’ve got more than enough with the players that we have,” Thibodeau said afterward.

“I know Leon (team president Leon Rose), and Wes (executive vice president William Wesley), and Scott (GM Scott Perry) will look into players that are available. That’s their area. I’m just focused on the guys we have. We’ll figure out a way,” added Thibodeau putting pressure on the front office to get him frontline help.

Thibodeau had to dig deep, employing Randle as a center with Kevin Knox at four. The small ball worked for a while as the Knicks ended the second quarter with an 11-3 run. They forced the Pacers to three turnovers in the last 2:26 of the opening half and pushed the ball to take a 54-52 lead at the break.

New York built a nine-point lead, 89-80, in the fourth quarter but Indiana, playing on the second night of a back-to-back, refused to quit. They came back behind unheralded guard Edmon Sumner and took a 98-93 lead. Barrett and Randle responded with a 9-0 run as the Knicks took the lead back, 102-98.

Noel played for extended minutes (41:15) and still delivered. He had eight points, seven rebounds, two blocks, a crucial steal, and two free throws with 1:15 left that gave New York a breathing room, 106-103.

Randle extended the Knicks lead to five, 108-103, on two free throws off Sabonis’ fourth foul. But Sabonis made up for it with a three-pointer at the top of the key to cut the lead down to two.

RJ Barrett, who also had a big night (24 points and 7 rebounds), missed two free throws that set up Ntilikina’s endgame heroics.

With Randle nursing five fouls, Thibodeau pulled the defensive ace up his sleeve.

The gambit paid off.

Rose had another strong game with 17 points, a season-high 11 assists, and four steals in his second start. His active hands led to Ntilikina’s pivotal play.

“It looked like Sabonis was being shaky with the ball. I saw the guard was at the top. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. I saw the ball was going back, and I just tried to go for it. It was just perfect timing, and Frank was able to get the ball,” Rose said of the game-sealing play.

Now the Knicks will travel to Detroit with a chance to move above .500 against the Pistons and the rejuvenated Dennis Smith Jr.

The former Knick, who was traded for Rose, is coming off his best game of the season (17 points and six assists) in a road loss to the Sacramento Kings.

Smith has scored in double figures in his last three games, averaging 14 points, 4.7 assists, and shooting 53 percent during that stretch.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Report: Pistons, Knicks nearing deal on Derrick Rose for Dennis Smith Jr, draft pick

New York Knicks, Derrick Rose

Will the third time be a charm?

Ten years removed from becoming the league’s youngest MVP, Derrick Rose is nearing full circle with the man who made him such.

Rose is set for a third reunion with Tom Thibodeau as the New York Knicks are close to re-acquiring him, according to multiple reports.

Dennis Smith Jr., instead of Frank Ntilikina, whose name was first floated Sunday night, will be the key piece in the reported swap.

The Detroit Pistons are seeking additional draft compensation. But it will likely be a future second-round pick, according to Marc Berman of The New York Post.

Rose, 32, will return to New York no longer viewed as a savior, unlike in his first stint in the 2016-17 season that ended in an ugly divorce. But at the minimum, he is expected to bring a scoring punch off the bench and mentor the Knicks’ quick-rising rookie guard Immanuel Quickley.

Change of scenery

Meanwhile, the Pistons hope that a change of scenery will help resurrect Smith Jr., a former ninth overall pick and the integral piece in the Kristaps Porzingis blockbuster trade.

Smith Jr. has requested the Knicks to send him to the G League after only seeing nine minutes this season. If the trade is consummated, he is expected to leave the G League Bubble and join the Pistons’ youth movement.

With the worst record (5-18) in the league, the Pistons have pivoted to rebuilding.

Rose fits Knicks short-term goal

The Knicks, on the other hand, are in the playoff hunt after a surprisingly strong start under Thibodeau.

Rose is averaging 14.2 points and 4.2 assists in 15 games this season. The Knicks will also acquire Rose’s Bird rights giving them the advantage to re-sign him in the offseason.

With $17 million in cap space, the Knicks can absorb the remainder of Rose’s $7.5 million salary this season. After sending out Smith Jr.’s. $5.6 million salary, the Knicks will still have around $15 million in cap space as the trade deadline nears.

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Tom Thibodeau feels New York Knicks have quality depth

New York Knicks

Tom Thibodeau continues to keep his opening night starters and rotation close to his vest with two days to go before his confident, young New York Knicks face the Indiana Pacers to open the season on the road.

As it stands, the Knicks will have the first few weeks of the season as an extension of the training camp. Without the benefit of the Summer League and fall practices, Thibodeau and his coaching staff had to cram in the condensed training camp and four preseason games.

While there’s still no clarity, the little window gave away some clues.

“Every day after practice, we talk about the rotation. We have a pretty good idea but that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Obviously, over the course of the season, we need everyone. And particular this year, under the circumstances, quality depth is important and I feel we have that,” Thibodeau said on his zoom call with reporters after Monday’s practice.

Bereft of quality depth for the past seasons, the Knicks have shown in the preseason that Thibodeau can extend his rotation beyond the regular 8-9 man-deep on some nights.

While it was a small sample size and against lousy teams that were also experimenting, the Knicks played with a sense of purpose and direction for the first time in years.

Knicks’ best players

Based on their preseason games, RJ Barrett is firmly entrenched at his spot in the starting lineup. So is the much-maligned Julius Randle with lottery pick Obi Toppin not showing enough so far to supplant him.

Barrett has played the most minutes among the Knicks in four games with 30.5, which ranked third behind the Los Angeles Lakers’ youngsters — Kyle Kuzma (34.0) and preseason revelation Talen Horton-Tucker (31.8).

Barrett averaged a team-high 17.8 points on 51 percent field goal shooting. What’s more impressive is that he shot 86.7 percent from the line, a big jump from his 61-percent clip last season. He also had a +/- 14.3. Though the three-point shot remains his weakness, his overall improvement has been a welcome development for a Knicks team lacking a bona fide star and firepower.

Randle was also solid in the preseason games, coming in seventh in most minutes around the league with 28.5 per game. The six-year veteran turned in 14.5 points on 50-percent field goal shooting on top of 5.0 rebounds and an astounding 5.5 assists against 2.8 turnovers. For the first time since his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Randle had a positive point differential, a +/- 9.0 in his preseason outings, which hopefully will spill over into the regular season. 

Pleasant surprises

It wasn’t just a coincidence that Kevin Knox has started to find his groove at the same time Immanuel Quickley was quickly climbing up the Knicks’ point guard ranks.

Knox has knocked in nine of his last 10 three-pointers while Quickley has quarterbacked the team like it’s never done since they have Jeremy Lin, Raymond Felton, and an old but still reliable Jason Kidd late in his career.

That begs the question of whether he should start or play behind presumed starter Elfrid Payton, who missed the last preseason game.

“Everything is based on merit,” Thibodeau emphasized again.

“So if you evaluate practices — who’s practicing well, what groups are playing well then you take that further to the games. And take that information. If someone is practicing well, that is important to us. And then when you have the preseason games, if they play well, the team is functioning well when they’re on the floor, that’s important as well,” Thibodeau said. 

Note the buzz word “functioning well.” It was the same word he used to describe Quickley’s awe-inspiring run in the preseason.

Best chance to win

During his 18-month exile, Thibodeau said he’s learned a lot and reflected on how he can improve to become a better coach than his previous two stops in Chicago, Minnesota.

But while he is starting to embrace analytics and load management, some tenets will remain the same.

“I think you play the people that you feel can give you the best chance to win. But also you have the understanding that over the course of the season, everyone gets an opportunity,” Thibodeau added. 

For the small sample size that Quickley ran the point, the Knicks were a joy to watch. His energy was infectious. His high basketball IQ was very obvious.

Even Payton, who should be worried about his starting role, was left impressed with Quickley and gave credit to where credit’s due.

“He (Quickley) played well. Coach [Tom Thibodeau] has done a good job preparing us. He knocked down a lot of shots. The ball was popping. It was good. I think our defense led to our offense as well. He played good defense,” said Payton.

Whether Quickley will start or not, his overall skill set, which trumps all the point guards the Knicks have had, will shine no matter what. 

“I don’t think he surprised any of us. We know he’s talented. He put in a lot of work day in, day out. There’s no surprise,” Payton said.

How deep can Thibs go?

While Barrett and Randle are locked to start, Thibodeau will enjoy watching the rest of the team competing for their spots.

Knox and Toppin loom to be the de-facto backups of Barrett and Randle.

Thibodeau has the luxury of interchangeable rim protectors in Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel. Robinson had picked up the slack when Noel sat out with an injury. The Knicks will have rim protection whoever between them is on the floor.

Payton may win the starting job at the point for now. But Quickley should give him a run for his money. 

Veteran Alec Burks was also solid in two games against Detroit before he skipped the last two preseason games to attend to his newborn baby as reported by Stefan Bondy of the Daily News. 

Reggie Bullock can be serviceable when his shots are falling.

There’s still the mystery of how Austin Rivers will fit into the scheme of things. But his veteran leadership, having played meaningful basketball with the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, will be counted upon when the going gets tough.

Odd men out?

But with depth comes hard decisions.

Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina could be the guys who will hit the most with the influx of quality depth to this retooled Knicks.

Smith Jr. started the preseason as Paytons’ backup, but with the emergence of Quickley, it’s going to be tough for him to carve a significant role. His newfound defensive grit was admirable, but his inconsistent outside shooting and lack of playmaking couldn’t trump Quickley’s overall talent.

Ntilikina has played more off the ball in the preseason. But he hasn’t shown quite enough to keep Thibodeau from leashing him ahead of Burks and Bullock.

Unless he can hit the outside shot consistently, or injuries struck their veterans, his playing time will be a roller coaster.  

It was pretty clear from the preseason games that the Knicks enjoyed much success with their young guys — Quickley, Barrett, Knox, Toppin, Robinson. But as Thibodeau said, the regular-season game will be a lot different.

Acid test

On Wednesday night, the Pacers will provide their first acid test.

“I think they’re a very talented team [Indiana Pacers]. They’ve built a great foundation over the last few years. They’re playing a bit differently now offensively in terms of their pace and the type of shots they’re taking. But they have a number of people who can go off the dribble,” Thibodeau said.

“And I think of course, with Victor missing a good chunk of last year, they were still a very good team. They have great depth and versatility to their lineup and you have Victor back into the mix, they are one of the best teams in the East for sure,” he added.

Thibodeau’s young Knicks will face a team that they hope to become in a couple of years to attract stars to come. Under normal circumstances, the opening game should set the tone for the season. But for the Knicks, it will provide more clarity on whether Thibodeau’s beliefs are standing on solid ground or just a shallow depth.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks light up hope in Thibodeau’s Garden return

New York Knicks

Tom Thibodeau has seen it all — from winning a championship in Boston to coaching young teams to the playoffs in both of his previous head coaching stops in Chicago and Minnesota.

But for the Connecticut native who bleeds orange and blue, there’s nothing like coaching at the Mecca of basketball.

No better place

Thibodeau reflected on his return to the Madison Square Garden as the head coach of the New York Knicks, the franchise that cultivated his coaching mind as an assistant coach in the ’90s. 

“It’s unfortunate the fans can’t be here,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks went up against the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night for their third and first home preseason game. â€œBut there’s no better place for big games in this building and the knowledge of the fans if you make a good basketball play it’s recognized.’’ 

For the first three quarters, Thibodeau must have felt he dodged a bullet.

For sure, he didn’t want the fans to see how the Knicks were getting kicked in the butt by a Cavaliers team that was without their key players Kevin Love, Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Kevin Porter, Jr., and Larry Nance.

The Knicks were painful to watch in the first 36 minutes as they continued to shoot bricks. They looked like a puzzled kid who couldn’t solve the Rubik’s cube with the way they struggled against the zone. They were a dreadful 4-for-26 from the three-point region.

Keep the faith

The Knicks fell to as many as 18, 78-60, and some of the Knicks fans on the Twitter timeline have started to check out.

But Thibodeau kept his faith in his young team.

“Really, we just played hard. That was the message, the assistant coaches, coach Thibs. They just stressed to us to keep fighting, keep the faith. And if we keep playing hard, we can come up with a win,” rookie Immanuel Quickley said when Rebecca Haarlow asked him what the coaching staff’s message heading into the fourth quarter was.

And fight they did.

Dennis Smith Jr. played with heart. Quickley pushed the pace. Kevin Knox fought with moxie. Obi Toppin was slammin’ and poppin’ while RJ Barrett continued to barrel his way. Mitchell Robinson played disciplined basketball.

It all begins with defense

If the first three quarters were painful to watch, the fourth quarter was so fun to watch.

And it started with Smith Jr. getting stops. He had a block and three steals in a row — the last two ended up with Quickley assisting Knox for a smooth jumper and an alley-oop dunk that got them within 10.

The much-maligned Smith Jr. then hit a three-pointer that trimmed the deficit to seven, 86-79, before sitting out for good and handing out the backcourt reins to Quickley in the final seven minutes.

Smith Jr., who was never known for his defense, finished the game with five steals, two blocks on top of eight points, and four assists in just under 16 minutes of play.

It didn’t matter that it came at the expense of the Cavaliers’ third-string guards. What mattered to Thibodeau was the effort.

“I think the big thing was our defensive intensity picked up. We got energy from that. We got some stops. We got on the open floor. I thought Dennis got us going with some good pressure. And then Quick came in, and that change it some more. So that’s how we have to play,” Thibodeau said afterward.

Good sign

That magical 34-13 run in the fourth quarter saw the Knicks shot 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, with Knox knocking in a perfect 3-for-3. Quickley issued six of his game-high seven assists. Robinson had two blocks while Barrett fed Toppin for the exclamation dunk in the Knicks’ 100-93 win, their second in three preseason games.

“Sometimes when you get going with your defense, it’s funny the energy that it brings to your offense, and then all of a sudden a couple of shots go down. And things are good for you offensively. Obviously, you want to play your best in the fourth quarter. And so that was a good sign,” Thibodeau said.

There were plenty of heroes for the Knicks. And that’s how Thibodeau likes it.

“I don’t think we can pick and choose who’s gonna lead us. I think you want a team of leaders — the work part, the intensity part, the togetherness part. That’s everyone’s responsibility. And everyone’s responsible for bringing what they have every day. So we want to build that habit,” Thibodeau said.

Caution thrown

But while it felt good to win his first game back in The Garden, Thibodeau was quick to throw caution and pumped the breaks cognisant of the fact that it’s just a preseason game, still a part of their training camp. He underscored the importance of how they will respond after this win.

“So they’re young guys, I think they’re learning. If you win, you have the tendency to feel good. You can’t do that. You can’t let your guard down. If you lose, you have to view it as an opportunity to learn. That’s the way we’re training them to approach it,” Thibodeau quickly added. 

The 62-year old mentor said at the start of the training camp that the first order of business is to whip this young Knicks team into a good practice team with emphasis on defense.

And if the first three preseason games are any indication, although, against some of the weaker teams in the East, some progress is being made. They have managed to keep opponents from reaching the century mark.

While their shooting is still wanting, they have shown flashes of brilliance despite not getting down to the nitty-gritty of their offense yet.

“I think the guys have been terrific in practice. Defensively, they’re giving everything that they have. Offensively, when we get that part down, I think we’ll put ourselves in a position to win. I know that if we can defend and rebound and keep our turnovers down, you’ll gonna be in a position to win, and that’s what we’re striving for,” Thibodeau said.

Back to the future

For what’s it worth, this game showed a lot of promise, especially the young unit that finished strong with the Knicks’ lottery pick Toppin, the oldest at 22.

They played with a lot of passion.

They played tough defense.

They played for each other.

They were having fun.

It was a throwback to the team of the ’90s that Thibodeau helped built under Jeff Van Gundy but, at the same time, opened a window to the future of how the Knicks will look like with him at the helm.

“You learn from each game. You’d rather win than lose. You take it for what it is. I think you learn from each game,” Thibodeau said, trying to put this win in its proper perspective.

“Obviously, you’d rather win instead of losing, and you take it for what it is, which is a preseason game. It’s an opportunity to evaluate where the team is with the season right around the corner. We really can’t waste one second every day about getting better and getting ready,” he added.

“It’ll be a different level when we get to the regular season, and we know that.”

Maybe it’s crazy to look into these meaningless games, but these matter to what this new regime has been building.

For the franchise that has long been wallowing in the darkness, Thibodeau has come back to the Garden and lit up the fire that may finally guide these young Knicks out of the tunnel. 

The Knicks fans, although they weren’t there to rock the Garden, are, for sure, starting to recognize it.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Fantastic Four: Tom Thibodeau lists most conditioned Knicks

Run, Knicks, run!

That’s how Tom Thibodeau plans to roll out his young and athletic New York Knicks beginning in the preseason.

The Knicks will face the Detroit Pistons on the road Friday at 7 p.m. E.T.

“I would assume that’s the plan. Every day we do a lot of transition drills, guys getting up and down. Everybody work super hard to get into shape to play that way. That’s the plan, so let’s see if we can execute tomorrow,” Dennis Smith Jr. said on zoom call Thursday after the Knicks wrapped up their short training camp.

The Knicks were tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic for 23rd place in pace at 100.9 last season. The Milwaukee Bucks led the league at 107.2.

Thibodeau never cracked the top-15 during his two seasons with a young Minnesota team. But to his defense, he surrounded Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins with veterans and played to their strengths, especially when Jimmy Butler came aboard.

This Knicks team is far different than what he had in Minnesota. So he’s playing the hand that has been dealt to him.

Tough cookies, fit rookies

To be able to sustain an up-tempo game, they need to be in their best shape. Thibodeau was pleased, especially with four players who showed up for the training camp fit and ready to go.

“Our two young guys, obviously they have a lot to learn, but in terms of commitment and conditioning, they’re really, really impressive,” said Thibodeau referring to his rookies Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley.

Both rookies benefited from the extended period of preparation for the Draft and the short turnaround time.

Toppin and Quickley will have their first taste of NBA action Friday night as they will mix it up against fellow rookies Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, and Isaiah Stewart of Detroit.

For them, this amounts to their summer league.

“I didn’t think the speed of the game would be too much faster, but it’s actually been a lot faster,” Quickley said. “I feel like Kentucky, they do a great job of preparing, but until you get out there and experience a full practice and going up and down really fast, there’s really nothing like it. I think the speed of the game has been the biggest jump, and I feel like I’m making a great jump. Every single day I feel like I’m getting better.”

Quickley could be in for a rude awakening on Friday when he and Toppin will experience the intensity, albeit watered down, of a real NBA game.

It will be a good gauge for both Thibodeau and Pistons coach Dwayne Casey on how their rookies and newcomers will fit into what they’re trying to do.

“The college game is very different from the NBA game. So there’s an adjustment period that you go through,” Thibodeau said.

There will be rookie jitters for sure. But Toppin and Quickley have sounded confident throughout the camp. The Knicks fans are anxious to watch them walk the talk.

Big bets on vets

It will be exactly nine months since the Knicks last played an NBA game. Among the holdovers and veterans, two Knicks have impressed Thibodeau with their conditioning.

“I would say the vets who stood out the most were actually two – I would say, Julius, who’s in great shape, and Kevin Knox is in really good shape as well,” Thibodeau said.

Both forwards have chips on their shoulders. Randle will be in his second season with the team, hoping to become a better leader. Knox, meanwhile, is aching to bounce back after a lackluster sophomore season.

Despite being the most conditioned Knicks, they will not necessarily garner the most minutes. Thibodeau will use the preseason games to experiment on different combinations for his regular-season rotations.

“We’ve been mixing and matching, and we’re still evaluating. I’m gonna meet with the coaches,” Thibodeau said.

“Obviously, there will be a larger rotation in this first game. But we’ll use it for preseason games and probably some games into the regular season as well before we settle in for our final rotation.”

While the Knicks rotation will be unpredictable, one thing is sure.

Run, Knicks, run!

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Knicks: Aggressive Dennis Smith Jr. shows up in training camp

New York Knicks, Dennis Smith Jr.

Dennis Smith Jr. is on a mission this season. In a lot of ways, he mirrors the New York Knicks.

Smith Jr. is trying to rebuild his shattered confidence. He’s hoping to regain the old form that made him a lottery pick and a member of the All-Rookie Second Team in 2018.

The Knicks have been trying to rebuild for years. They’ve brought back Tom Thibodeau, a coach who’s been part of their glorious past, hoping to recapture it once more.

“You see that with a lot of players — a young player who usually finds some bumps on the road, and he had those and find a way to rise above them and become successful,” Thibodeau said of Smith Jr. on his zoom call Wednesday.

Road bumps

Smith Jr. experienced road bumps in his career that stemmed off the court last season when his stepmother died. He wasn’t mentally locked in, and he fell off the rotation. His confidence took a massive hit.

In 22 games last season, the Knicks point guard put up career-low numbers — 5.5 points on 34 percent shooting, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.9 assists.

He was considered a special talent despite the lack of shooting coming into the NBA. With his burst of speed and athleticism, he was the Dallas Mavericks’ apple of the eye before Luka Doncic came. As a rookie, he averaged 15.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and a steal. The only thing that kept him from really shining is his 39.5 percent field goal shooting.

On the night before he was traded to the Knicks, he turned in a triple-double special (13 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds) as a parting shot to the Mavericks in the Madison Square Garden.

It went downhill from there.

A way back

This summer, Smith Jr. has started to find a way in the hopes of rising above the road bumps. He linked up with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, one of the best NBA shooters in history, to repair his shooting mechanics and, in part, his confidence.

He showed up in the training camp a renewed man.

“He’s been very aggressive. I think each day. He’s gotten better and better. That’s what we’re asking him to do — to run his team, keep us organized, take advantage of what you’re strengths are, your ability to get downhill, force people to collapse, and then make the right play,” Thibodeau said. “He can score the ball. He’s shooting the ball pretty well right now. But he’s making good plays also.”

Confidence comes from preparation

Thibodeau has always preached the importance of practice. To him, confidence starts in those games played in empty gyms.

This season, that’s where Smith Jr. and the Knicks will play — in empty arenas with the global pandemic has yet to slow down in this part of the world.

Thibodeau is looking forward to seeing Smith Jr.’s brand new confidence and shooting in the games, starting with their preseason on the road in Detroit on Friday.

“That’s what you’re hoping to see, and we’ll know when we get into the games. A big part of shooting, of course, is your confidence and concentration,” Thibodeau said.

“So if you put the work in, obviously, you’ll get more confidence from doing that. And of course, being in great shape is a big part of being successful in this league. So he’s got to continue to work on conditioning, continue studying the league, and just concentrate on getting better every day,” he added.

Whether Thibodeau is genuinely giving Smith Jr. a chance to play heavy minutes or shot up his trade value is immaterial.

Smith Jr. is in the last year of his rookie deal. He has to find a way to rise above the road bumps, or his NBA journey could end up turning the wrong way.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Knicks: PG whisperer Tom Thibodeau wants to build Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina’s confidence

New York Knicks, Dennis Smith Jr.

The New York Knicks are looking to salvage Dennis Smith, Jr. and Frank Ntilikina. Can Tom Thibodeau save them?

When Derrick Rose revived his NBA career, Tom Thibodeau was the biggest voice in his corner.

“He was the only coach that believed in me,” Rose said.

Two years since Thibodeau helped the former MVP regained his footing in the league, he now faces another reclamation project in New York with Dennis Smith, Jr. and Frank Ntilikina.

If Kenny Payne has built a reputation as a big man’s whisperer in Kentucky, Thibodeau had the same effect on point guards since he became a head coach in Chicago.

Thibodeau made Rose the youngest MVP in league history in 2011.  He was able to squeeze every ounce he can get from rental guards D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson, John Lucas III, and C.J. Watson.

Augustin credited Thibodeau for reigniting his love for the game during his lone season in Chicago in 2013-14, where he averaged a career-high 14.9 points in 30.9 minutes.

“Not only did he give me the opportunity, he actually brought my love for the game back,” he said in 2014. “You kind of lose that a little bit, your passion for the game, throughout the years in the NBA depending on playing time and different situations you may be put in. Coach Thibs, I owe him a lot. I give him credit for bringing my passion for the game back and wanting to learn and play hard.”

Robinson, meanwhile, swore by Thibodeau in a July interview with Ian Begley of SNY.

“One of the best men, honestly. He’s a student of the game and he’s a teacher – he’s both. He’s like Yoda,” Robinson said. He knows his stuff, he really gets after it, he watches a lot of film. He preaches defense-first and if you play defense, you get offense. That’s the reward. I learned a lot from coach Tom Thibodeau over the years when I was in Boston with him for a year and when I was in Chicago for a year. If (there’s) anybody that can change the Knicks, it’s probably him.”

Robinson averaged 13.1 points in his one season in Chicago in 2012-13, the most since he posted a career-high 17.2 points in New York in the 2008-09 season.

The Knicks are hoping Thibodeau can have the same effect on Smith and Ntilikina.

Both young point guards are entering the final season of their rookie contracts, and no Knick rookie has been extended since Charlie Ward in 1999.

“I’m getting to know both guys. I like what they’ve done so far. They got to continue to work,” Thibodeau said in a zoom call with reporters on Friday. “There’s oftentimes ups and downs for young players there’s, you know — there’s a learning curve they have to go through. Some experiences will be better than others.”

Smith is on the same spot when Rose and Augustin were looking to regain their confidence.  After a promising start to his NBA career, Smith rammed into a wall last season while dealing with an assortment of injuries and coping up with the loss of his stepmother. He was in and out of the lineup.  With his confidence shattered, he averaged a career-low 5.5 points.

On the other hand, Ntilikina has never lived up to his billing as a lottery pick.  The French point guard showed flashes of brilliance on the defensive end, but his limited offensive skillset has made him ill-suited for a roster lacking in shooters and floor spacers.

Thibodeau has already plotted his bounce-back plan for both young guards.

“They both have had some good moments in the league. You want to build consistency. And how do you get there? You have to do it through your work, you have to learn from the experiences and you have to be disciplined. And so, hopefully, we can get there this is a very important offseason for both players,” Thibodeau said. 

The gift of Thibodeau is he’s a basketball lifer, a teacher.  He empowers his players by harnessing their strengths and covering up their weaknesses.

“You look at the things they do well and try to build off that and try to add things to their game,” Thibodeau said.  “That’s why I think offseason is important because you can zero in on those things and help build confidence.  I think that’s where your confidence comes from.  Your confidence comes from your preparation. Your willingness to work on those things and see that you can be successful in doing them.  But you never want to take a guy away from what his strengths are.”

Smith and Ntilikina are at a crossroads.  All they need to do is follow Thibodeau’s lead.

New York Knicks’ Dennis Smith Jr. is taking the superstitious route to spark his potential

New York Knicks, Dennis Smith Jr.

Under new management, the New York Knicks are headed down a different path than in recent years. Of course, focusing on the youth agenda is a priority, but sparking some of their talented players will be a challenging task for new head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Thibodeau was enamored by point guard Dennis Smith Jr. when he was drafted, but since entering the NBA, he has struggled immensely. With some of the most athletic traits you could ask for in a basketball player, he has not lived up to his potential so far. Averaging 15.2 points per game in his rookie season with the Dallas Mavericks, he hasn’t broken that benchmark since.

Last year with the Knicks, he averaged 5.5 points per game and 15.8 minutes, seeing his impact drop off considerably. His lack of defense and offensive capabilities have been extremely limiting, but the Knicks will try to turn around his performance in recent years, unlocking the potential he undoubtedly holds.

Smith understands that things must change if he wishes to continue growing in the NBA, so he’s taking a superstitious approach toward his revolution. New York Post NBA reporter Marc Berman stated that Smith is looking to change his number, in hopes of sparking the potential he once had entering the league.

The New York Knicks are happy to assist in anything that might help him improve:

After selecting the number five, he’s reverting back to number four, which he utilized in college. During his only collegiate campaign, he averaged 18 points, six assists, five rebounds, and two steals per game. He shot 45% from the field and 36% from three. Those stats have only degraded, and hopefully, this change number can spark confidence that simply doesn’t exist in him right now. Smith is only 22 years old, meaning his physical prime is still readily available.

Bringing in new player development coaches and a system that could benefit him, Smith will be looking to pick up where he left off in college. This is the second time he’s changed his jersey number since entering the NBA, but this one has a bit more sentimentality.

Of course, there is still a possibility that the Knicks go out and draft LaMelo Ball to fill the point guard spot, which would put Dennis Smith Jr. in a back-up role permanently. The direction of the draft for the Knicks is up in the air, and Smith is running out of time to solidify his spot on the team.

Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau was ‘enamored’ with Dennis Smith Jr. in 2017 draft process (Report)

New York Knicks, Dennis Smith Jr.

Point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who was selected by the Dallas Mavericks with the ninth pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, is one of many individuals on the New York Knicks playing on a rookie deal. The Knicks acquired Smith as part of their return on Kristaps Porzingis from the Mavericks in January 2019.

According to SNY’s Ian Begley, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau, the president and head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves in June 2017, was “enamored” with Smith coming out of college.

“Something worth noting on the workouts: Thibodeau and others with the Timberwolves at the time were enamored with Dennis Smith Jr. coming out of college, sources say. Thibodeau and others from the organization attended Smith Jr.’s private pre-draft workout.”

Smith played one season at NC State. The Timberwolves made a draft night trade with the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler. Minnesota swapped first-round picks with Chicago in the trade, going from seven to 16; Smith wasn’t on the board when the T-Wolves were on the clock. Meanwhile, the Knicks selected French point guard Frank Ntilikina with the eighth pick.

Smith held his own in the second half of 2019 with the Knicks, averaging 14.7 points, 5.4 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 41.3 percent from the field.

Last season was a setback for the point guard. He was a primary reserve and logged a career-low 15.8 minutes per contest across 34 games, three of which he started. Smith averaged 5.5 points, 2.9 assists and 0.8 steals per game while shooting 34.1 percent from the field.

Knicks president Leon Rose called Smith “a special talent” in a June interview with MSG Networks. Their point guard depth chart includes Smith, Ntilikina and Jared Harper; veteran Elfrid Payton has an $8 million team option for the 2020-21 NBA season.

New York has been linked to a handful of potential lottery guards in the upcoming NBA Draft including RJ Hampton, Killian Hayes and UNC’s Cole Anthony. The Knicks have three draft picks: their own first and second-round pick (8, 37) and the Los Angeles Clippers’ first rounder (27).