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Facing elimination, Knicks search for solutions ahead of Game 5 vs. Hawks

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks reacts

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks reacts against the Atlanta Hawks during game four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at State Farm Arena on May 30, 2021 in Atlanta. Credit: Getty Images/Kevin C. Cox

From the very first days that he was in charge, before he’d even had a day of training camp with the team, Tom Thibodeau preached a consistent message: Focus on today. Don’t skip a step.

And now, with the Knicks trailing the Atlanta Hawks 3-1 in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series and facing the extinction of this season, the message is the same to the team, a group that has heard it enough to mimic the coach.

"At the end of the day, it’s one day at a time and that’s all we can focus on," Julius Randle said. "We have Game 5 at home to extend the series and that’s really all we can focus on."

"Guys are optimistic," Taj Gibson said. "We’ve been counted down the whole year. This is really nothing new. We’re just looking forward to the next game."

The Knicks are searching for a solution to the problems they have faced, particularly in a pair of one-sided losses in Atlanta in Games 3 and 4. But there is no cavalry coming to rescue them. There are no roster moves, no players returning from injury. So the solution is to do what they do, but just do it better.

Thibodeau already has made tweaks to the way he went through the regular season — inserting his familiar faces, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, into the starting lineup. But those two already were absorbing a bulk of the minutes.

The daunting task for Thibodeau and the Knicks is finding a way to change the things that they have been unable to do. They must slow down Trae Young, make him work on the defensive end, unleash their own three-point attack and stifle the Hawks’ array of shooters. But even with three days between games and a day devoted to film and recovery Monday, there is little they can hope to do but stick to the plan and hope they have the talent and will to make it work.

"Each game you get more information," Thibodeau said. "As you prepare for a team, you think about all the things, what your adjustments might be, things that you can do. And you’ve got to build off your foundation of the things you have in place. But again, the same thing holds true. So when you’re putting your team, your plans, together at the beginning of the season, you think about all the things that you’re going to have to have in by the end of the year to prepare yourself for the playoffs.

"Then each game tells you something, either the combination that they may have on the floor, who’s in the rotation, who’s out of the rotation, that sort of thing. Then in terms of evaluating change, the first question that you ask yourself: Are you executing the scheme, the offense properly? Then the second question is: Are you doing it hard enough? Sometimes the answer is yes, and that’s when you change."

Thibodeau hasn’t seemed to lose confidence that his team will turn things around. Obi Toppin, maybe with a rookie’s optimism, already was counting off the games — a return home for Wednesday’s Game 5, a Game 7 at home, too.

"Everybody’s still confident," he said. "We’re taking it game by game. It’s not over yet. We still have this upcoming game in New York, we go back to them, and Game 7 will be back in New York. So we’re taking it game by game. We’re here studying, getting better, and we’ll be prepared for the next game."

"I love it when people count me out," said Toppin’s fellow rookie, Immanuel Quickley. "I feel like that’s how my whole life in basketball has been, when people say you can’t do something or you’re not good enough or that’s not possible. I feel like that kind of drives our team as well. When we came into this season, everybody was expecting us to be in the lottery. For us to even be in the playoffs, it’s great, but I don’t feel like our team is done yet. I don’t feel like our team feels we’re done yet. We love it when people count us out. That’s what we’ve hung our hat on all year."

Notes & quotes: Quickley said he thought a beer was thrown near the Knicks’ bench at Madison Square Garden last week. "Yeah, Game 2, somebody threw a beer or something," he said. "Not sure why, not even sure who did it, but it happened. I guess that’s part of having fans in the game . . . I’ve seen it happen before and people are riled up for big games. I don’t really know what’s going through their head at that moment. I didn’t get a chance to ask them. But they were just riled up and threw a beer." Garden security caught the person who threw it and he was ejected and permanently banned from coming back.

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