Tom Thibodeau sees similarity between Jalen Brunson-led squad and 1990s Knicks

Feb 27, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) controls the ball against the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden.
Feb 27, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) controls the ball against the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Thibodeau was an assistant coach with the Knicks for seven seasons, starting in 1996-97. So he had a front-row seat to the franchise’s last era of sustained success.

He sees one similarity between those teams and the 2022-23 Knicks: their daily habits.

“I love coaching these guys, they’re committed to each other,” Thibodeau said before his team beat the Nets soundly for their seventh-straight win. “They live in the gym, they’re gym rats, so they’re going to get better and better.”

The way this Knicks team approaches practice/preparing for games reminds Thibodeau of some of the mid-to-late 1990s Knicks teams.

“Patrick Ewing set the tone for all of that,” Thibodeau said. “When you walked in [the gym] – could be the middle of the summer – he was in there, he was your hardest worker,” Thibodeau said. “When your best players are setting the tone for the team, it’s special.”

The 2022-23 version of Ewing is Jalen Brunson. The first time Thibodeau saw Brunson in the gym with his Knicks teammates this summer, he was reminded of some of the Ewing-Allan Houston Knick teams.

“I hate to say it but … that’s what their team was like,” Thibodeau said of the teams that won a combined seven playoff series from 1997-2000.

Thibodeau’s first impression of Brunson and the Knicks has proved true. Under Brunson’s leadership, New York has climbed to fifth place in the Eastern Conference with five weeks to go in the regular season.

The group seems to have adopted Brunson’s team-first mentality. Look no further than Wednesday, when six Knicks scored at least 13 points against the Nets.

“We’re winning. What’s better than that? Everyone always says they wanna be part of a winning team and stuff, and that’s kinda what it looks like,” RJ Barrett said. “Just a bunch of good players. You don’t know whose night it’s gonna be on any given night. But we always play hard and no matter what we all cheer for each other.”

It was Brunson’s night on Wednesday. He had 30 points in the first half on 12-of-14 shooting. He then took just one shot in the third quarter, choosing to set up his teammates and search for the best shot on a given play.

“It’s easy when you go up 20, 30 to kind of have that mentality of ‘alright, let me be a little more aggressive. I’m five points away from my career high let me go get it,’” Josh Hart said. “But [Brunson] is someone who plays within himself. He’s a team-first player. He wants to be successful and he wants his team to be successful. He’s willing to sacrifice when he needs to. He’s willing to make the right play and the right pass and that’s something that we lean on him for.”

Brunson wasn’t the only Knick who shot it well against Brooklyn. Quentin Grimes had 22 points in 26 minutes, hitting six of nine three-point attempts. Overall, New York hit 20 of 35 threes.

Afterward, there were a lot of jokes among players in the Knicks locker room. Even Thibodeau managed to smile on the sideline in the fourth quarter of New York’s blowout win.

“Everybody is just fun to be around,” Grimes said. “….The last 20-something games, people have been clicking in, buying in, not worried about individual stuff. Just worrying about what they can do to help the team. And you see it out there on the court every night.”


Derrick Rose could have asked for a buyout from the Knicks and signed with another playoff team. Maybe he would have had a rotation spot with that team. He chose to stay in New York, where he is currently out of the rotation. Thibodeau seems grateful that Rose elected to stay with his group.

“We know how important he is to the team,” Thibodeau said. “…. Whatever your role is, embrace your role, star in your role and help in any way you can. And Derrick, whether he was the MVP of the league, whether he was a starter coming off an injury or coming off the bench or not in the rotation, he’s a very positive guy. He’s been through a lot. And going through adversity, he’s gone through it all.

“He’s always lifting people up. So a big part of part of leadership is important to be truthful. I think that’s how you build trust with each other. But it’s also important to lift people up and I think that’s what he does. Not worried about himself, always puts the team first. And he’s always been a great veteran voice for all our young guys, for all our players. Not just the young guys.”