Before the Knicks took the floor at Madison Square Garden Wednesday against the Orlando Magic, Tom Thibodeau was asked if he had considered changing the starting lineup, a trigger he has a history of being very slow to pull.
He stuck with Elfrid Payton last year through the entire regular season. He did it back in Chicago when fans and media were clamoring for him to pull Keith Bogans. And with the Knicks starting unit digging holes nearly every night that the bench has had to bail them out of, the subject was raised again.
He paused for a moment and said, "You know, what you see is what we have. There’s not a big difference between either group and so we’ll see how it unfolds. I’m not opposed to it, but I like the way the second unit is playing. There’s risk in that, too. You change that you may lose the effectiveness of that second unit."
Thibodeau likes to speak about the talent level of the NBA players lowest on the stardom rung, pointing out that no one gets to the league unless they are a great player. And it is that belief that keeps his team on track through the toughest of times.
It’s why RJ Barrett is able to shoot with confidence when mired in a long shooting slump. And it’s why Thibodeau is sure that Evan Fournier will find his form in New York.
Barrett started Monday’s game against Indiana by missing his first six shots, including three from beyond the arc. That extended a streak that began with the previous four games in which he was 13-for-56 overall and just 3-for-22 from three-point range. But it was the confidence that allowed him to fire with no hesitation in the third quarter, draining consecutive threes to help the Knicks overcome a double-digit deficit and pull out a much-needed win.
"He’s got a really good demeanor," Thibodeau said. "He doesn’t get too high when things are going great, and he doesn’t get too low if they’re not going his way. He has a lot of mental toughness, which I think is important."
That has been tested through Barrett’s first two-plus seasons in the NBA. He endured a miserable rookie season when his performance was spotty and the team was terrible. And it helped him when he went through an 0-for-21 streak from beyond the arc early last season yet recovered to shoot 40.1% for the season from long range.
The test now falls to Fournier. If Barrett had the burden of being a No. 3 overall pick in what some considered a two-player tier of stardom in the draft, Fournier has arrived with the task of living up to the $78 million contract the Knicks signed him to in the offseason.
"To me, it’s like, he knows who he is," Thibodeau said. "He’s played a long time in this league. Again, he’s got to catch his rhythm. He made a number of good plays. I thought the way he was coming off on the pick and roll, the way he was coming off screens, he’ll find his way through this."
What he has not had is the opportunity to come up big in big moments of late. After a 32-point season-opening performance he has seen his playing time cut as he has struggled and the bench, including Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks, has bailed out the Knicks starters. Entering Wednesday’s game against Orlando, Fournier had not played in the fourth quarter of the previous three games.
He is shooting a career-low 40.9% overall and just 35.6% from three after shooting 41.3% last season between Orlando and Boston. For now though, Thibodeau will ride the hot hand, whoever it is.
"He’s proven to be a good player in this league," Thibodeau said. "I think every player has to navigate through those things. And you call it a slump — I don’t necessarily agree with that because you can play well without shooting well. And that’s what I want everyone to understand and I think for the most part our guys do.
"Sometimes you have to put the team first. So sometimes it’s a case of the other guys playing better or you’re playing well and your group is playing well. That’s really what it’s all about. If the group is playing well they’re going to play."