The defeat at the hands of the young Oklahoma City Thunder at Madison Square Garden surely left a mark. So much, indeed, that veteran forward Julius Randle stepped up and deemed it necessary to organize a players-only dinner “trying to hold each other accountable,” as RJ Barrett put it on Tuesday.
This was no secret meeting leaked by anyone, to anyone. It was a publicized night reunion after a “ridiculous” performance against the Thunder in which New York surrendered a barely believable 145 points. It was a dinner among teammates from which head coach Tom Thibodeau was wholly excluded—as were all other members of the Knicks staff without playing rights. It was a reunion aimed at “trying to get [the season] going” because “we want to win,” said Barrett.
“Try to figure this out the best that we can.”
Barrett and the rest of the Knicks must have found the main cause of the problems hurting them and their on-court performance judging by their 118-111 win away from home at Utah on Tuesday night.
It was a weirdly coached outing, mind you, with Thibs deciding to remove Evan Fournier and Quentin Grimes from the rotation entirely over the full 48 minutes of playing time. None of them entered the game on the injury report. Although neither Fournier nor Grimes (who has been going through a sore left foot injury recently logging just eight minutes in each of the past two games) have featured heavily recently, this is the first time this season that they didn’t log a single minute when on the gameday squad.
When asked about that decision after the game, Thibodeau said, “I’m learning my team.” He is still trying to answer questions such as “what works best?” or “are guys able to get in a rhythm?” For a coach into his third season with the team, one that has not really seen that much change in terms of roster differences from last season to this one—barring the addition of Jalen Brunson to the starting lineup—that’s a bit surprising, and shocking to hear, now 14 games into the campaign.
Cutting down the rotation to nine players must have felt like the right move for Thibs, who was quoted saying that he thinks “we were tied together” after defeating the third-best team in the West by seven points away from NYC. All things considered, that’s a little bit of an opportunistic statement after the players-only dinner seemed to be the deciding factor for Tuesday’s team revitalization.
Of course, the questions about the players-only meeting were expected in Thibs’ post-game press conference. Asked if the dinner could be a good thing for the team, Thibodeau said, “I’m more interested in seeing the talk translate into action on the court.” Those would have been incendiary words had the Knicks suffered a defeat, although it’s fair to assume the comments would have been different had that been the case.
Again, it’s a bit of a strange position to take by Thibodeau considering how voices have been growing louder of late regarding his security at the helm of the team, let alone after Sunday’s putrid outing. It feels like he’s challenging the players more than encouraging them and strengthening the bonding of the team—players and coaches—as a unit.
“The ball is moving and we just played together,” said Immanuel Quickley after the game. IQ had back-to-back three-point shots fall in the fourth and that pretty much sealed the deal for the Knicks late.
“We stuck together for four quarters,” in Jalen Brunson's words.
A single players-only meeting won’t fix it all, but it felt like it truly helped the team ahead of one of their toughest early-season games to date. The win was definitely not exclusively linked to a dinner in the middle of Salt Lake City.
When asked “what stood out about [the players] performance?” yesterday, Thibs said that he enjoyed “the togetherness”, how they “helped each other out”, and the “great will, determination, unselfishness,” wrapping it all up by saying that “it was a good road win for us.”
Us, obviously, implies the assemblage of the players and the coach. We know the meeting sparked a positive reaction from the former, and we also saw some tweaks from the latter in how Thibs managed the rotation.
Thibodeau is hanging this W in his wall of merits and triumphs, as he probably thinks he should, but we’ll see if that stays the same going forward and through the remainder of the west-coast trip starting tonight in Denver against a Jokic-less Nuggets.
As long as everything flows and “talks translate into action on the court,” there shouldn’t be a problem. Unless Thibs can’t make it all work, as is his wont.