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For Tom Thibodeau, Knicks' improvement not measured by one win

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau reacts to a call

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau reacts to a call during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. Credit: AP/Adam Hunger

The Knicks had just finished off a surprising and emphatic win over the Milwaukee Bucks, not just beating up on one of the NBA’s elite teams, but doing it for the first win of the Tom Thibodeau regime and the first win for this downtrodden group.

And when he appeared on the postgame Zoom interview, Thibodeau could not be distinguished from the coach who had overseen a pair of one-sided losses to start the season. He was calm, measured and realistic, a message that he was certainly imparting to his young team as surely as he provided lessons after the losses.

"We’re not going to get carried away with one win," Thibodeau said. "I think you can’t lose sight of the work part of it. We always say that the magic is in the work, and it really is. I think you improve incrementally and as long as we’re putting the work in to it, we’ll get better."

While Thibodeau insists the magic is in the work, maybe the magic is just as much in being exactly what he has been — not panicked by the ugly losses and not joyous at Sunday’s performance.

That matters because there is a legitimate question still to be answered after that win: Just how much of that was an illusion?

The Knicks to a man played off the charts in the win over the Bucks. Elfrid Payton scored 27 points and shot 12-for-16, his high as a Knick and the fourth-highest scoring output of his career. He was a combined 3-for-13 for a total of seven points in the first two games.

Frank Ntilikina came off the bench and hit all four of his three-point attempts for 12 points after missing all three of his field-goal attempts in the first two games. As a team, the Knicks shot 59 percent from beyond the arc and 54.1 percent overall.

RJ Barrett came out on fire in the season-opening game, hitting his first nine shots. He followed that by missing his first nine shots Saturday. He played well Sunday, but was 0-for-4 beyond the arc and is 3-for-13 from long range in the three games.

So shots will fall and then they won’t. But the message that Thibodeau has been preaching has been that effort and defense can be there every night. And the important thing to take from the victory is that the Knicks played a complete game for the first time after playing well for a half and fading in the first two games. Now, rather than a clip of a solid performance, Thibodeau can show the team an example of what can be.

"I think you want them to understand the winning component and all that goes into winning," Thibodeau said. "Every game, we’ll pull clips for them to watch – both good and bad. The things that you did well and maybe we didn’t do enough of those things well to win the game. Every game that we can improve – and maybe we’re at 24-25 minutes of really good basketball – maybe we get it to 30 and keep pushing forward and to understand we’ve got to eliminate all the ways in which we beat ourselves first to put ourselves in position to win. And usually that’s your defense, your rebounding, getting your turnovers down. And so that’s what we’ve been emphasizing."

"[He’s a] very disciplined coach. Knows what he wants," Payton said of Thibodeau. "He doesn’t care if we do it a hundred times. He’s going to make sure he gets it to his liking. So for that I think we’re really prepared. I think that’ll be good for us this year."

A challenge for the Knicks now though is not just trying to get together on the court, but also to navigate their way through their first extended road trip, heading out on a four-city, eight-night trip in a still-surging COVID-19 environment.

"I think the NBA has great, great protocols in place," Barrett said. "So just got to stay safe and then got to go out there and compete, play hard."

Notes & Quotes: The Knicks say Dennis Smith Jr. will not accompany the team to Cleveland as he rehabs his bruised left quad and could possibly join the team later on the trip.

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