Tom Thibodeau is showing all of us he can change. A win over the Cleveland Cavalier squad Wednesday night would be just the second time in six postseason appearances that he’s beaten a higher-seeded team in the playoff. The last time was in 2013 when his fifth-seeded Chicago Bulls squad beat the fourth-seeded Brooklyn Nets in seven games. That Nets team wasn’t nearly as talented as the Cavalier squad, who his Knicks have trounced to take a 3-1 lead. Beating the Cavs will be Thibodeau’s greatest playoff win in his career. It will show he can win an upset series as the lower-seeded team. It will prove he can outcoach in a tight chess match. And most importantly, it will reveal him finally learning how to adjust on the fly.
The number one reason Knicks fans have wanted Thibs fired, especially me, has been his inability throughout his career to deviate from his game plan to make in-game adjustments. Ever since he saved his job in December by shortening the rotation to nine players, he escaped the murmurs beginning to form in Madison Square Garden, as high up as James Dolan, to fire him. Sometimes it takes a breaking point for a man to evolve finally. The first came on December 4, after a humiliating loss to the Dallas Mavericks when the Garden faithful booed the Knicks off the floor. With that loss, the Knicks gave up 41 third-quarter points and dropped three games under .500.
But as breaking points tend to be for those who have experienced them, they tend to come in waves. The next was after the worst loss of the last decade, also against the Mavericks, when Luka Doncic scored a franchise-record 60 points, along with 21 rebounds and 10 assists, including the tying basket off his intentionally missed free throw to force overtime. Dallas was down nine with 33 seconds left, and the Knicks' defense, the hallmark of Thibodeau’s legacy, broke down completely to lose the lead and eventually the game.
Ever since Thibodeau has shown a willingness to change his game plan to win, he’s released the arrogance and ego that’s held him back from being more than just a great regular-season coach. His .572 winning percentage is often touted by his loudest interns for his greatness while ignoring the .410 playoff winning percentage. But, as mentioned, the 2013 win over the Nets was the only time he beat a higher-seeded team in the post-season. That’s not a hallmark of a great playoff coach. Tonight, he has the chance to change that. A win over the Cavaliers, who almost every pundit had beating the Knicks in six or seven, would prove he can be what his propagandists say he is.
The Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns were able to close out their series last night in dominating 4-1 fashion. The Boston Celtics could not, choking away the game to the Atlanta Hawks to make the series 3-2, heading back to Atlanta. The difference was the superstar leaders of the Nuggets (Nicola Jokic, 28 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists) and Devin Booker (47 points, 10 assists, and eight rebounds), compared to the Celtics' Jayson Tatum’s 19 points and 1-10 form three. What does this mean for the Knicks? The closeout game must be led by Jalen Brunson and, yes, Julius Randle.
Randle must wake up in Game 5 to help his team close out the game. The biggest move of Thibodeau’s coaching career with the Knicks was benching Randle last game in favor of Obi Toppin, who has outplayed Randle this series off the bench. If he had reverted to his old coaching style, playing the guys who “got you there,” Randle would have closed the game, and the Knicks would have lost. I’ve described the Randle/Thibs dynamic as symbiotic. They have enabled the worst of each other over the past two seasons. Thibs has shown a willingness to hold every player accountable but Randle. Last game, he showed he could bench him to win the game. It was a pivotal moment in his growth as the coach of the Knicks.
Now it’s Randle’s turn to show he can change and return to the form that earned him his second All-Star birth and will probably lead to his second All-NBA nod. If not, this summer will beget pivotal questions around which of our power forwards we should invest in long-term. Toppin is eligible for an extension this summer. Randle played as an MVP candidate all regular season, but as Knicks fans know, only the playoffs matter. We would not be the fifth seed without Randle returning to the 2020-2021 form that made him great. But we have not seen that player in the post-season. He’s been a mess on offense. So much so, Thibs went with his backup to close out Game 4. Randle must show he can bounce back mentally and perform on the highest stage to close out this series.
It’s true; we can win despite another bomb from Randle if Jalen Brunson balls out. As I’ve said repeatedly, the Knicks outmatch the Cavs at every turn, point guard, small forward, power forward, center, bench, and head coach, except shooting guard. But Brunson has been the best player in this series. He’s outplayed Donovan Mitchell at every turn. We can close this out behind another superstar performance by him. But any chance at a deep playoff run this post-season, and the soul of our team moving forward, depends on Randle waking the fuck up.
It’s guaranteed that the Cavs will hit back as hard as they can as they return home. Mitchell’s playoff legacy is being written with this series, and he hasn’t had a great performance since Game Two. Expect him to drop over 40. It won’t matter, as the Knicks will do what’s necessary to close this out—Knicks by single digits.