When Tom Thibodeau was introduced as the latest coach of the Knicks six months ago, team president Leon Rose pointed to their long relationship and added, "I’ve watched him work over the last 20 years, and the fact that he’s won everywhere he’s been was an overriding factor."
And the place where he won the most was Chicago, where he guided the Bulls for five seasons, making the playoffs every year and never winning fewer than 45 games while compiling a 255-139 record, a .647 winning percentage. He went 50-32 in 2014-15, his final season with the Bulls, but was pushed aside in a power struggle with a front office that believed they had a better way.
As Thibodeau returned to Chicago to face the Bulls on Monday and again on Wednesday, he already had provided hints of the turnaround with the Knicks. And maybe he won’t be the one to point out that the Bulls have gone through three coaches and just one playoff series in the five seasons since he departed.
"Obviously, I spent a lot of time there and I certainly enjoyed it," he said. "That can be said for a lot of teams, unfortunately, but it’s a great city, great organization, great tradition, and so I’m fortunate just to be part of this league. I enjoyed my time in Chicago for sure."
His return, though, perhaps was not so enjoyable as the Knicks fell to the Bulls, 110-102, at the United Center.
Julius Randle led the Knicks (9-13) with 23 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. Alec Burks had 18 points, Immanuel Quickley 16 and RJ Barrett 14 as the Knicks lost for the fifth time in six games.
Chicago (8-11) was led by Lauri Markkanen with 30 points and Zach LaVine with 21.
With 8:22 to play, after another defensive blunder led to another uncontested dunk, Thibodeau called timeout, ripped off his mask and ripped into his players as they came to the bench. Was it Nerlens Noel he was upset with, as the rim was left unprotected, or was it any number of players who had failed to rotate to help?
The only one certain not to be blamed was Obi Toppin. He’d been yanked a possession earlier for defensive failings.
The dunk created only a three-point deficit, but that did little to assuage the anger of the coach, who had hoped to provide a better impression of what he is building in New York.
"Just not the effort that we’re capable of," Thibodeau said. "I know that we have the makings of a very good defensive team and it’s — when we’re concentrating and we’re giving maximum effort, we’re usually pretty good."
The Knicks gave up plenty of those wide-open looks — at the rim and outside the three-point line. But they still were in the game, taking a lead for the first time in the second half when Quickley hit a long three-pointer with 3:32 remaining.
With the Knicks down three in the final minute, Randle turned the ball over and LaVine — who once played for Thibodeau in Minnesota — connected on an open three-pointer to put the game out of reach.
"I don’t know, man," Randle said. "I just think we’ve got to mentally lock in and get off to better starts, first and third. Specifically the third, we dig ourselves out of holes, and to start the third quarter, we’ve got to come out with more of a sense of urgency. I don’t know how we do it, I don’t know how we lock in to do it, but we’ve got to come out with more of a sense of urgency for sure."
Thibodeau had spent 20 seasons as an assistant with six teams, including the Knicks for seven seasons, before getting his first head-coaching opportunity in Chicago. He has been successful in each stop but also has developed a reputation for pushing his teams hard. In Chicago, that led to success on the court and finger-pointing as injuries arose, with his critics noting the workload he put on his primary players.
Those minutes already have been in place in New York, as Randle and Barrett rank first and second in the league in total minutes played. But there have been no complaints from the long-suffering Knicks — or their fans — as Thibodeau already has begun to change the team’s culture.
"He’s done a good job with putting me in a good position on the court, playing me just in a good spot in general," Randle said.
"But I think the biggest thing is just holding me accountable and continuing to push myself to do more. And also holding me accountable with leadership and bringing energy to the team."