clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hawks 112, Knicks 99: “At least we aren’t the Nets”

We need to talk about Thibs.

Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

The most powerful earthquake ever recorded was the Valdivia earthquake of 1960, off the coast of Chile. Thousands of people lost their lives, yet it’s one small group who died that always seizes my heart, one moment I can-NOT imagine suffering. It’s also how I feel right now as a Knick fan after last night’s 121-99 disaster of an L against Atlanta.

The Valdivia earthquake came a day after a three-quake sequence 450 miles north in Concepción. After one of those earthquakes, villagers from Ancud, a town 300 miles south of Valdivia — 750 south of Concepción — were so scared they went out in their boats. A police boat the next day was towing some of them home when another quake struck. This is where it gets so sad, and to where I imagine I’m not along in my Knick feelings.

That last earthquake was so strong it literally pushed all this sea water away, leaving the sea floor exposed and the boats stranded. Sometime later, with all those people ironically stranded on land at sea, the missing water made its way back via a tsunami. The boats were wrecked. The people were killed. Horrible, yes? Yes. But consider this.

There were children on those boats. When the water regressed, it had to be something they’d never seen before, the sea exposed like never before. Imagine: one second you’re hearing children marvel and squeal. And then, not long after, you catch first sight of what looks to be an impossibly high wall of water rushing toward you. 48 hours ago the world made sense, and now there’s nowhere to go, nothing to do but die. Imagine the sound of the tsunami. Crescendo, then crash, then no sound at all.

I fell asleep late in the second quarter of last night’s game, shortly after some good Knick ball movement found RJ Barrett in the corner for 3 and a 23-point lead. When I woke it was late in the third and the Hawks were up double-digits and looking entirely too loosey-goosey. It didn’t make sense — a 37-point swing in little more than a quarter? Imagine waking up tomorrow to Barack Obama being president. That’d somehow be less weird.

If the postmortem interests you, here it is: the Knicks played one of the worst quarters I can recall from them, scored as many points as they had turnovers (10), missed all nine of their 3-point attempts, and Tom Thibodeau sat and watched the wave coming. Unlike the poor people of Ancud, Thibs had options. He often does, but more often than not doesn’t bother, which is often Knick fans’ biggest bother with the man.

Obi Toppin tends to make things happen and exploded for 10 points in only six first-half minutes, draining a couple of 3s and converting a nice off-the-dribble move. Immanuel Quickley was probably the team’s best player on the night, remarkably hauling down 16 rebounds. And yet after IQ, the only reserve to get more than 18 minutes was Isaiah Hartenstein, a gifted player in some areas but a big who rebounds like a much smaller man, a.k.a. Eddy Curry Syndrome.

Thibodeau has made a habit of this, even in the good times. Remember in 2021, when amidst the Knicks’ incredible late-season run to the 4-seed the people, the numbers and the culture were all begging for Elfrid Payton to be benched? What did Thibs do? Started Elf all the way through the regular season, then started him in the first two games of the playoffs. Payton only played eight minutes in Game 1 and five in Game 2. So what the hell was that? Charity? Kindness? A begrudging acceptance of reality wrapped around Thibs’ middle finger?

Last year Thibodeau refused to hold Julius Randle to account: not for his game, his body language, not for nothing. No matter how much good Obi did, it never changed anything for Thibs. It still hasn’t. This isn’t just about Obi vs. Randle, nor am I here to single out Julius. Evan Fournier is a (breathes deeply) limited defender, yet continues to start alongside Jalen Brunson, another limited defender. If Randle pulled the crap RJ Barrett does in the clip below, aneurysms would’ve popped around the Big Apple like champagne on New Year’s.

The only Knicks coach I have ever supported firing was Isiah Thomas. Everyone else who’s ever been canned, I had reasons to feel they’d been wronged (David Fizdale was close, but I remember feeling like he’d been hired to coach KD and Kyrie, which meant to leave them alone, and so the blame for his failings maybe didn’t totally rest at his feet). When it comes to Thibodeau, I feel very much like one of those people from Ancud. For a few reasons.

First, this loss, for whatever reason, sparked a hotter flame than most blown leads. A sample of some of the tweets I woke to:

Maybe we’re hypervigilant about things going wrong against Atlanta, but it seems like this loss sent some kind of shared unspoken message to a lot of Knick fans. Like the tsunami on the horizon, it’s like this game signaled something across our collective consciousness, warning us this wasn’t just another ol’ seventh game of a season, but a call to fight or flight. If Thibodeau won’t fight his biggest battle, more and more fans gonna want that man on the next one-way flight out of town.

If Thibodeau insists on coaching like an obsessive-compulsive and refuses to make obvious adjustments because that’s just not him, and those refusals come at the expense of the young core you wouldn’t break up for a 25-year-old All-Star who salivates at wearing the blue and orange, something has to give. What is this team about? What is the goal? If it’s play-in or bust, then establish that and give your coach clearance to chase it. Sacramento makes no bones that’s their ambition, and yes, I’m aware I just cited Sacramento un-ironically. They’re just a game behind the Knicks and not trying to be all things to all people.

And before you call out the starters as if they’re the only problem, they’re not. Battle lines have been drawn and most vocal fans sound definitively pro-bench, but I suspect the truth is a bit more holistic than one side versus the other. I’ve seen the faithful fight about the starters pissing games like this away and seen nights like Monday in Cleveland, when the shoe’s on the other foot. I don’t suspect that the current starters are the best we can come up with. But even if changes were made, would that mean the agenda has? Does the franchise measure success by finishing top-10? Top-8?

If your goal is about the future and the kids, then make sure Thibodeau is on-board with your vision. He may not be, and I wouldn’t blame him if that’s the case. For him it may be as simple as “I’m here to win.” Steve Nash went 94-67 in Brooklyn and may never get a head coaching job again. Mike Woodson started out 72-34, then got fired a year later after finishing with the same record Thibodeau did last year. Coaches being on-board with losses that go on their record is like players sacrificing numbers for what they’re told is the greater good. If the team that asked for the sacrifice decides they aren’t going to reward it, bet most outsiders won’t either. James Dolan and Leon Rose knew who they were getting when they hired Thibs. Doesn’t seem from the outside like anything earth-shattering has happened since Thibodeau arrived to radically alter anyone’s expectations.

Quoth itsallhearsay3: “ [A]t least we aren’t the Nets.” There is always that, thank God. Consider this, though: Brooklyn just hired a man who was suspended for the year for sexual misconduct, and I’d be curious to see poll numbers on how confident Nets fans feel about their coach as Knick fans do about theirs, Coach of the Year not too long ago. Just because we’re not the epicenter of the disaster doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. We may be Ancud.

If it feels like a lot is suddenly at stake, maybe it is. The Knicks were 3-1. They’ve since lost three straight, and their next four games are a back-to-back set with Philadelphia and Boston, then Minnesota and finally the crosstown abomination. If something doesn’t change soon, New York could be 3-7 and riding a six-game losing streak. They need something to hit. Something big. If it’s not a couple of Ws, might it be a pink slip?