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Message to and from Knicks: Good start, finish better

RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks dunks

RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks dunks against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden on February 27, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Elsa

When the Knicks finished off the first half of the season Thursday night, Tom Thibodeau sent them on their way, a much-deserved break for a team that has surpassed the expectations of most outside of the locker room.

But if the 19-18 record satisfied the fan base, it’s not surprising that it wasn’t enough for Thibodeau. Asked about his plans for the break, he smiled and said, "You know me. Turks and Caicos."

He laughed a little, and no one believed him.

While the players don’t have to be back until Tuesday, their coach left them with a message to stay ready because they hadn’t done anything yet.

"Good first half. Enjoy it for a little time but stay locked in," RJ Barrett said. "We have a lot of things to accomplish in the second half. Still got a lot of work to do, and I think everybody received that message and I think we’ll be fine."

It’s easy to understand the excitement the Knicks have generated, even if the success is relative compared with many, including the crosstown rival Nets, who are realistically dreaming of a championship. The Knicks are a game above .500 and hold the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. They have an All-Star in Julius Randle. And for once, they at least have hope.

Barrett has grown not just in his second season but during it. Up and down the roster, it would be hard to find a player who hasn’t exceeded past performance or expectations as the team has bought into Thibodeau’s hard-driving style.

They have managed to navigate an unusual season, avoiding the massive roster and schedule disruptions some teams have been struck by because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That has helped them stay ahead of teams such as last year’s Eastern Conference finals combatants, Miami and Toronto. Still, Mitchell Robinson remains sidelined with a fractured right hand and Derrick Rose was lost to COVID-19 protocols for the last two games before the break.

The schedule ahead is the sort of grueling challenge that could make or break the season as soon as they take the court again. They open with a four-game road trip that includes three teams ahead of them in the East. That surely will be on their minds, even as they relax.

"It’s our focus throughout the break, making sure we’re staying on top of our conditioning, staying sharp on our group," Randle said. "But as a group, we aren’t satisfied. We aren’t nearly satisfied. We haven’t accomplished what we want to accomplish. We know we can get better. As a group, we’re hungry for more."

"There’s some good things that we did, obviously some things that we have to improve upon," Thibodeau said. "The break comes at a good time. We’ve had a difficult schedule in terms of travel. Get a chance to gather, take a look at the first half, dig into it and then of course be ready for the second half.

"The challenge will be great. It should bring out the best in us, but just don’t change our approach, concentrate on improvement each and every day, be ready for Milwaukee. That’ll be a great test for us first game out."

With that, you can be sure that even if he were to head to the beach, Thibodeau would have an iPad with him loaded with game video.

New York Sports