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. “But 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.
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.
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.
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