Tom Thibodeau is keeping the Knicks focused on the task at hand

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Ian Begley
·5 min read
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Knicks RJ Barrett and Julius Randle high five
Knicks RJ Barrett and Julius Randle high five

If you’re a Knicks fan, maybe you woke up on Saturday thinking about possible playoff matchups for your team. Or Julius Randle’s case for Most Improved Player. Or how everyone’s underestimated RJ Barrett.

It’s totally understandable if you are full of optimism after the Knicks, behind Randle and Barrett, beat Dallas on the road Friday for their fifth straight win.

But you shouldn’t expect Tom Thibodeau to spend time thinking about any of those things.

One of the driving factors behind the Knicks’ surprising success under Thibodeau has been their constant focus on the task ahead of them.

So Thibodeau probably woke up on Saturday thinking about Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball and the Pelicans.

“We try not to get wrapped up in any of that stuff,” Thibodeau said late Friday when asked about his team’s five-game winning streak. “…. If we’re taking care of all the little things, the big things will take care of themselves. Just stack good days. We want to have good practice days, we want to have good shootarounds, we want to play our best in games, we want to learn each day and we want to keep getting better.

“I think that we have a belief that we can win. That’s probably the most important thing, and it started that way in the beginning. And it doesn’t really matter what outside people think, it’s what we think.”

When Thibodeau says the Knicks believe they can win, it may sound like a cliché. But if you’ve watched this team all year, you know that the confidence of this group is real.

So many of the Knick teams in the past half-decade or so have struggled to deal with adversity. Things usually went sideways after a losing streak or an injury.

But Thibodeau’s club has been able to weather all of those things.

The Knicks had lost five of six before their current five-game winning streak (their first since 2014).

They’ve been winning games with Mitchell Robinson, their starting center, sidelined for much of the year.

On Friday, they found out that Alec Burks – a key contributor – was out due to health and safety protocols. Burks had scored 21 points off the bench in New York’s win two days earlier.

It was reasonable to think that they’d struggle against a solid Dallas team (21-10 over the past 10 weeks) playing on its home floor.

But behind big games from Randle (44 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists) and Barrett (24 points on 9-18 shooting, 8 rebounds) and Derrick Rose thriving off the bench (15 points, five assists), New York topped Dallas to move 1.5 games ahead of Miami in the Eastern Conference standings.

Apr 16, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) dribbles as Dallas Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10) defends during the second quarter at American Airlines Center.
Apr 16, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) dribbles as Dallas Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10) defends during the second quarter at American Airlines Center.

The offense was solid on Friday but the Knicks’ identity this season has been on the other end of the floor.

Thibodeau’s club held Dallas to 44 percent shooting from the field. Entering Saturday’s games, they have the No. 3 defense in the league, based on net rating.

They also have the NBA’s lowest opponent field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.

Defense is usually a hallmark of Thibodeau-coached teams.

But it hasn’t been a hallmark for the Knicks, who have routinely finished in the bottom third of the NBA in defensive rating over the past two decades.

So Thibodeau and his staff deserve a ton of credit for the club’s defense.

It’s even more remarkable given the fact that the Knicks, like the rest of the NBA, had a short training camp and barely practice due to the pandemic.

Mavs coach Rick Carlisle estimated that Dallas has practiced 25 percent less than they would in a normal season.

So Thibodeau and his coaching staff have implemented a top defense without much practice time and without many elite individual defenders on the roster. (Depending on who you ask, Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson are exceptions to that statement).

Thibodeau on Friday said the club’s commitment to defense started early on.

When planning for the season, he and the staff thought about this question: “What do we what do we want our identity to be? What are the things that are most important?”

His answer is the reason New York is enjoying one of its best defensive seasons in the past two decades.

“We felt like the defense, the rebounding keeping our turnovers down would put us in position to win,” Thibodeau said.

“And then we wanted to grow each day, build winning habits and I think we're working towards that. Then we felt like the next biggest challenge would be how quickly can we adapt to change, both from learning a new system, new players coming in, knowing that you're dealing with all the health and safety protocols of testing and you might have guys out, you don’t know how many guys you're going to have each and every night, and you try to prepare as best you can for your opponent knowing that they're going through the same thing.

“So you can get to a game and suddenly there’s an entirely different starting lineup, and you have to be ready for that. So having the ability to adapt very quickly and get the job done that those are important characteristics to have and hopefully we'll continue to build those, the right habits to make us successful.”