CHICAGO, IL - MAY 10: Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls yells at a referee against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on May 10, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agress that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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Surprise, surprise. Early on in New York Knicks camp, the word is that Tom Thibodeau is emphasizing defensive concepts.

Danny Small

TARRYTOWN, NY—File this one under “easiest predictions of 2020.” In his first two days of real, live practice as head coach of the New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau is focusing on defense. Considering his background, this should not come as a shock to anyone. In fact, defense has always been Thibodeau’s calling card.

Over the last two days of media sessions (conducted remotely via Zoom, of course), the word is that Thibodeau is honing in on defensive concepts that he wants to teach this young Knicks squad. That’s a great starting point for a team that lacked an identity prior to Thibodeau’s arrival.

“A lot of teaching on the first day, of course,” Thibs told reporters on Sunday. “It’s slow-moving, so we’ve got to get it up to a game-like pace.”

“Slow-moving” as Thibodeau puts it, is to be expected for a new head coach with a young team. Add in the COVID-19 protocols plus the fact that most of the Knicks last played a game in March and it’s no surprise that practices are starting off slowly.

The Knicks are a young, athletic team and that is perfect for a defensive-minded coach. What the Knicks might lack in offensive firepower, they can make up for with defensive tenacity.

“I think one of the strengths of our club is that we are young and we are athletic,” Thibodeau explained. “I want to try and take advantage of that. And obviously, when you have older guys, the advantage they have is they have the tricks of the trade are down pat. When you’re younger, hopefully, you can try and take advantage of your legs and your athleticism.”

RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, and Mitchell Robinson are three of the centerpieces of this young squad. If they buy into this defensive-minded approach, the rest will follow and so far, it sounds like this trio is all-in on Thibodeau. Barrett echoed his head coach on how the first day of practice went.

“A lot of learning concepts on defense and how we’re going to play this year,” Barrett said. Toppin later added that the first practice went “pretty great.”

When day two rolled around, it was Mitchell Robinson’s turn to step in front of the camera and answer questions from virtual reporters. Always an interesting interview, Robinson discussed the different vibe in Tarrytown now that Thibodeau is the man in charge. When asked how Thibodeau’s practices are different from other coaches he’s had in the past, Robinson paused to ponder the question.

“He’s more of a defensive coach. We really don’t do so much offensive stuff,” Robinson told reporters. “I feel like from what I see…if you get stops, that turns into buckets. …He’s just more technical on the defensive end.”

The offense might be a work-in-progress this year. The Knicks don’t have a bonafide first option to carry the offense through lulls and slumps. As a result, it sounds like Thibodeau’s plan is to use defense to create offense. Generating easy buckets off of turnovers and breakouts is a sure-fire way for a young team to succeed.

We’ll have to see how the defense-first focus at training camp translates to games, but it’s no surprise to see Tom Thibodeau sticking to his roots.

Quick Knicks Notes