Tom Thibodeau is renowned for his hard-driving style, but when he met with the Knicks after Saturday’s disappointing performance against the Denver Nuggets, he sent them on their way with a message — go home, take a day off on Sunday and think about what they want to be.
The day off after a game in which they trailed the shorthanded Nuggets by 30 points in the fourth quarter and were booed loudly by the fans at Madison Square Garden might seem out of character for Thibodeau, but finding the character of his team is what is on the table right now, more than any X’s and O’s.
"I have to be better," Julius Randle said after Saturday’s 113-99 loss dropped the Knicks to 11-12 after a 5-1 start. "Everybody has to be better. And I’ll take responsibility for the team. I’ll take responsibility for myself. That doesn’t bother me. At the end of the day, I just want to win.
"I think everybody — well, I know everybody in that locker room wants to win, too. So we got today. We got [Sunday] off. We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and decide what we want the season to be. I know what I want it to be. I know what the guys want it to be. But we have to commit to it, and that’s just really what it is."
The Knicks knew what they were last season in a campaign that was played mostly in empty arenas and with teams battling COVID outbreaks. They were better prepared and played harder than the opposition on most nights, overachieving for a 41-31 record and a No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The front office prioritized offense in the offseason, adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier while letting the starting backcourt of Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton walk. The results have been an inconsistent offense — with Walker already benched — and a defense that isn’t anywhere near what the Knicks put on the floor last season.
"I just think we’ve got to understand that in order to win games, we’ve got to play really hard, extremely hard," Randle said. "We’ve got to have game-plan discipline and we’ve got to win games on defense. If our offense is great, great. That’s just a bonus.
"But who we are as a team, how we built this team and this culture is just fighting defensively, the togetherness, just the effort, the hustle plays. I feel like that’s what the city of New York loves. That’s what the fans love — when they know we’re out there giving it our all.
"And I think sometimes we’re too lax. We might think the little details don’t matter sometimes or whatever it is, but we’ve just got to understand to get out of this, we’ve got to do it together.
"We’ve just got to care," RJ Barrett said. "I don’t mean that we don’t care. I think everybody cares in the locker room. We really do. We work so hard every day, every game.
"I think just on the defensive end, just be more intense. We can’t allow — especially for the most part in all our games, we play a good game and there’s like a four-minute stretch where we just go down big and then we pick it back up again. It’s like, during that little stretch of the game, we’ve got to stay solid."
Thibodeau may have needed the day off, too, to study and consider the lineups he is putting on the floor. He said he is sticking with his decision to keep Walker on the bench, considering him a starter and not someone who can be a backup. But that doesn’t mean changes aren’t coming.
"The thing is, if we’re not performing well, look, there may be more changes coming," he said. "That’s the thing . . . I like our group, I like the way they approach it. We all put our stuff together. We’ve got to focus together and we’ve got to work our way out of it together. That’s the way it is."