Magic coach was certainly sincere as he praised Thibodeau and the Knicks before Wednesday night’s game began.
He wasn’t posturing or softening Thibodeau up. But he provided a simple scouting report for the Knicks under Thibodeau.
"I would say they’d be one of the teams people don’t want to play against," Clifford said. "They defend every night. You’re not going to get anything easy. They’re good on both backboards. His teams, as the season goes on they’ll get better and better offensively. … They’re second or third in defense. I don’t think there’s a bigger compliment in this league than being hard to play against, that a team wouldn’t want to play against. And they’ll continue to get better. "
But what may have been true on paper turned out to be anything but in reality as the injury-riddled Magic overwhelmed a struggling Knicks squad, sending the Knicks to an unlikely 107-89 defeat.
Terrence Ross led the way for the Magic (11-18) with 30 points.
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak and spoiled a golden opportunity for the Knicks to even up their record, a huge upgrade from the expectations for this team.
Instead, the Knicks were left explaining away a lifeless performance. After a stellar offensive start to the game, hitting nine of their first 11 shots and building a 32-23 first-quarter lead. Julius Randle seemed bound for another All-Star push performance — hitting his first five shots, including three from beyond the arc. While Randle managed to finish with a solid 25 points, it was the bench that let them down.
The bench backcourt that has excelled of late came up empty. Derrick Rose was 1-for-10 from the floor. Immanuel Quickley endured a 1-for-12 effort, missing his first 11 shots before a steal and breakaway dunk finally got him on the board.
RJ Barrett scored 15 points, but played just 27 minutes, sitting much of the fourth quarter.
"They played really well," Thibodeau said of the Magic. "I want to give them credit. We didn’t make shots and we allowed that to impact us in other areas. But our defense wasn’t good right from the start. We were just trading buckets. I think at the start of the game they scored five or six times in a row right off the bat. And when you do that, it’s going to be a long night. And that’s got to be our calling card."
"I feel like it was a good opportunity for us," Randle said. "We just didn’t have it for whatever reason. You chalk it up look at film and see how we can correct it. We got a good one on Sunday. We just got to move on."
There was a smile from Thibodeau when Clifford’s comment was relayed to him before the game, but there was no smiles during this game. Instead, he angrily threw down a paper in the huddle in the fourth quarter and walked off the court at the end with a wave to Clifford and then shaking his head.
The play that Clifford described has been the hallmark of Thibodeau’s teams in Chicago and Minnesota, whether they were reaching the Eastern Conference Finals or scrambling for a playoff berth, and the latest bit of proof that his efforts are working in New York, too.
While his time away from the game after being let go in Minnesota allowed him the opportunity to visit with other teams and see how other coaches worked, Thibodeau has remained true to his basic strategies. While the Knicks roster is arguably no better than last years — adding Immanuel Quickley, losing Marcus Morris — they entered Wednesday’s game with a 14-15 record, three straight wins and had slipped into sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
"I think the biggest thing for us is just to worry about what we have to do to win," Thibodeau said. "…It’s the degree of how hard we play, the degree of how smart we play, and the degree of how together we play. It requires everyone working together."
Notes & quotes: Frank Ntilikina, after having to spend the last week quarantined in a Miami hotel room after being sidelined by health and safety protocols due to contact tracing after close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, was back with the team Wednesday and active. He was able to work out on an exercise bike in his hotel room, but Wednesday morning's shootaround was his first chance to play after taking a car service to Orlando to meet the team.