We need to talk. Pull up a chair. This is a sensitive and a touchy subject but it needs to be broached. Ready?
Tom Thibodeau has flaws. I know. He’s the best coach we’ve had since his mentor, Jeff Van Gundy. And he has taken us out of the proverbial swamp and back into the playoffs. He has performed many miracles with this over-achieving roster, Julius Randle becoming a household name most of all.
But these past two losses, and the Magic loss before that, and the lost leads and unnecessary, nail-biting finishes — those are mostly on him. We hear a lot about his manic preparation. The man practically lives in the gym. Nothing that has transpired so far this young season can be attributed to a lack of preparation.
As Van Gundy said on Knicks Film School Podcast, Leon Rose has let Thibodeau be Thibodeau. And that’s a good thing. Most of the time. Perhaps the man is too over-prepared. His bear paw grip looks too tight around the offense’s neck. We know offensive Plan A is move the ball until you get the right shot and once you do, shoot it. This has led to an unprecedented number of 3s from not just the Knicks, but any Thibodeau-coached team. But what the hell is Plan B? So far when the 3s stop dropping, it’s been dump it to Randle on the elbow for a Melo-lite isolation.
Randle is not Carmelo Anthony. Not even close. And that’s okay. We don’t need, or want him to be. Randle has struggled this season after a hot first three games. He’a even choked some games away on missed free throws. Yet, Thibodeau continues to not only keep him on the floor when his shot is off, but running the offense through his nervous hands. This isn’t fair to Randle, who is showing us he is better suited to be one of the best second options in the league. It also freezes out the rest of the players on the court from taking turns being what the teams needs to win.
The team lacks creativity on the floor because Thibodeau lacks flexibility. He preaches for his players to take what the defense gives them, but doesn’t follow this mantra in his play-calling. The man just needs to step back at times and let Kemba Walker or Derrick Rose man the point and call plays. We have only seen that trust from Thibs once so far in the win over New Orleans, when RJ Barrett showed the world he had arrived. In that fourth quarter Thibs benched Randle after the forward couldn’t get it going and surrounded Barrett with floor spacing for him to operate downhill with.
But what have we seen since in losses to the Raptors and Pacers? More of the same forced chucking, turnovers, missed free throws, and isolation in the last two minutes. It’s unfair to levy that blame on the shoulders of Randle, who gives it his all night after night. No, this is on Thibodeau. It appears his time as head coach with the Knicks will be a journey. Perhaps a long one with many errors. There will be times like this where we are incensed. He does not deserve our apologist excuses. We can only hope the elite supporting coaching staff and his core players vocalize alternatives. Speak up for riding the hot hand. And most of all, we hope Thibodeau listens. The Knicks are his third coaching stop in a quest for a championship. He has survived on his innate ability to inspire and pull the best from players he leads. But he has also been stubborn; arrogant, even, in his strategy and in-game decision making. It has kept him from winning it all as a head coach. And in order for that to change, he must continue to evolve.
WHEN THEY LAST MET
The Knicks were two games over .500 and experiencing the highs of Thibodeau’s turnaround last time these teams met on March 27 of last season. It was one of the rare times Randle missed a game but Barrett and Alec Burks both dropped 21 points to lead the Knicks to a six-point win. It had to help that Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton all sat out.
Word is Middleton is out for tonight’s game due to Covid protocols; Holiday a likely to return from an ankle injury. If he starts, expect a heated exchange between he and Walker. Walker will need to find ways to score under Holiday’s suffocating man-to-man defense and hope his 3-point shot continues to fall. This feels like another RJ Barrett game waiting to happen. With Middleton out, expect Barrett to take the challenge of guarding Giannis on critical possessions.
WHAT’S BEEN HAPPENING IN MILWAUKEE?
The Bucks have been ravaged with injuries to their starting line-up, with the exception of Finals MVP Antetokounmpo. The Bucks currently sit at 4-4 and will look to make the Knicks their victim on the way over the hump. Giannis has been playing with bench scrubs for most of these games and will (hopefully for Bucks fans) enjoy having Holiday back in the line-up to ease the scoring load. The Bucks are fresh off of a 117-89 stomping of the Detroit Pistons.
There was a time, not too long ago, when Knick fans would wear paper bags on their heads at The Garden. Hard to imagine that now, amidst the Bing Bong euphoria, isn’t it? There was also a time, not too long ago, when Knicks fans — fed up, disgusted, and ashamed, — would chant the name of a coach, executive, or owner right after the word “Fire!”
Echoes and reverberations of “Fire Layden!”, “Fire Chaney!”, Fire Isiah!”, “Fire Jackson!” still haunt The Garden’s rafters. We aren’t there yet with our beloved Thibodeau, not even close. But the country is much different now than it was back in the mid-2000’s. Americans have become partisan lemmings. We are so focused on eviscerating the other side we can’t be bothered to see our own blinding plank. We have become lazy and pathetic in how we refuse to critique our leaders who wear our jersey or represent our political party. But in order for us to be better, to truly leave the stank of the past 20 years behind and break whatever existential curse has corroded our fandom, we must continue to hold our team accountable. It’s what makes us different from other fan bases. We don’t kiss our owner’s ass. Or our coach’s ass. Or our star player’s ass. We hold them accountable even when they wear the same jersey, colors, or logo. Just like we used to hold our home team politicians accountable too.
The Knicks will eventually figure things out. Thibodeau is too good of a coach not to. It just won’t be against the defending champs. Expect the Knicks to be in it till the end. There’s too much pride and preparation on this team for them not to. Bucks take it in a slugfest.