ATLANTA — In his pregame media session Friday, Tom Thibodeau was asked about his starting lineup, if he would do what he did in the second half of Game 2: insert his longtime partners, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson.
And with a straight face, he said, "Yeah, I’m still undecided."
You could have conceded him his preference if he’d stuck with Elfrid Payton, whom he had started all season long and through the first two postseason games. And in the heat of an evenly matched playoff series, you could have understood if he had said he had decided to rely on his most trusted lieutenants.
But if you are familiar with his meticulous preparation, you could not believe Thibodeau, who leaves no stone unturned, when he said he didn’t know.
Thibodeau had fought to get Rose and Gibson on the roster. With the inexperienced Knicks testing the postseason waters for the first time, he went with what he knows.
Thibodeau wouldn’t name a lineup until exactly 30 minutes before the game, but he did provide the real clue by noting that his decision was based on "what gives us our best chance to win." And that meant Rose and Gibson.
The Knicks had cut Payton’s minutes game by game, starting him and then inserting him in the starting lineup again for the second half and not reinserting him once he was subbed out after shorter and shorter spurts. But on Wednesday, with the Knicks trailing by 13 at halftime and Rose playing well, Thibodeau put Rose and Gibson in the lineup to start the third quarter. With even Julius Randle struggling to get into form, Rose has been the most consistent player for the Knicks.
Thibodeau praised Rose, who has played with him in three different cities, spanning nearly the entire career of Rose from a young MVP to a rehabilitating shell of that player after multiple knee surgeries to this, a smarter, still surprisingly athletic version.
"It’s different," Thibodeau said. "He gives you an added dimension, but also you have to look at how things fit together, what that does.
"Julius got untracked in the second half. We need everyone. The game tells you what to do. When Derrick gets trapped, he gets off the ball quickly, he can make plays to the back side. So whenever a team is overloading one particular player, the player has got the responsibility to get the ball off quickly, move and we can get great shots. I think Derrick’s experience, just reading the game, the game’s going to tell you what to do. And then we’ve go to surround Julius with shooting. That factors into it as well."
Gibson, who also has been with Rose and Thibodeau in Chicago, Minnesota and New York, shrugged off the notion that Rose is not the same sort of dangerous player he once was.
"Yeah, you let him gas you up if you want," Gibson said after Wednesday’s win. "He’s just being modest. He’s been playing extremely well. But at the same time, he’s been taking real good care of his body. One thing about Derrick I’ve noticed: When he’s in a familiar situation, in a situation that he’s comfortable in, he understands it’s family, he understands that it’s a good environment, a winning environment, he’s going to flourish. And right now he’s around familiar faces he’s been in battle with for a long time.
"It’s no coincidence how he’s been playing. His leadership role is on a whole other level right now as far as just talking to the young guys. But in that third quarter, I was shocked. I didn’t know what to expect. But Thibs switched the lineup up, just trying to give some more energy, and it worked.
"We’re a real family here. We really believe in the 15 guys. And nobody never pouts. Everybody understands that whatever it takes to win the game. We always celebrate together. We’re a real team and a real family.’’