Six weeks ago, we wondered if the Knicks should keep employing head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Six weeks later, I must eat some crow with a healthy side of my words. Even as the Raptors snapped New York’s eight-game winning streak on Wednesday night, it’s hard to not feel at least a little optimistic about these Knicks. The defense is strong, players are focused, and the lack of Obi Toppin’s energy doesn’t seem missed at all.
And it all goes back to Thibodeau. The defensive mastermind indeed still has something left in the 64-year-old tank. In fact, defense was what defined the Knicks’ streak. New York averaged just 97.7 points allowed in those eight wins. That’s 6.7 points better than the NBA-best Cleveland Cavaliers who, ironically, the Knicks defeated to kick off this successful run.
Mind you, none of this is to say Wednesday’s loss is the last before the Knicks coast to the Finals. Don’t parade Thibodeau down the Canyon of Heroes just yet either. There’s still a lot of season left and New York still ranks sixth in a top-loaded Eastern Conference. Good as the team has looked, it’s hard to imagine it topping the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Durant/Kyrie Nets in the playoffs.
But even so, this is the most competitive the Knicks have looked over a one-month stretch since Thibodeau first arrived. Yes, having a players-only meeting to refocus also helped, but remember that predated the streak by over two weeks. In the interim, it was the veteran coach who got things back on track and prepared the team for this latest run of success.
Does this mean I’m doing a full 180 and endorsing Thibodeau as the man who will win New York a ring? Far from it. I actually still very much think he’s just here to rebuild a winning culture before someone younger takes over. But that’s another story.
Right here and now, it’s clear that the Knicks are still buying into Thibodeau and his defensive philosophy. Just playing better on D has the players more confident on offense, particularly Julius Randle. He’s averaging over 25.1 points per game in December. Even better, he looks even more motivated than he did in his breakout season two years ago.
Thibodeau can be a frustrating coach, but he’s still a good coach. He’s succeeded wherever he’s gone and his early exit in Minnesota looks more indicative of management signing with Karl-Anthony Towns. In New York, he finally seems to have found a recipe for sustained success starring Randle, Jalen Brunson, and RJ Barrett shine. Now, let’s see him build on this streak.
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