The Knicks and Bulls met for a third time in a span of just over a month on Thursday night, the sort of familiarity that in earlier days in the history of these franchises would have led to hard fouls, benches clearing and the NBA studying film for fines and suspensions.
While Tom Thibodeau was a part of some of those groups from his days as a Knicks assistant and a head coach in Chicago, his long relationship with Bulls coach Billy Donovan avoided the sort of war of words that once existed when Phil Jackson was roaming the sideline in Chicago (who can forget "Big Chief Triangle?").
But the games are leaning a bit in the physical direction this season with the rule changes that were intended to remove drawing fouls rather than trying to score. There also have been far more players staring at officials as play heads the other way with an implication of "play on."
Julius Randle griped after Tuesday night’s loss in Brooklyn that the officials told him that ". . . certain contact doesn’t affect me like it affects other players. Because I’m stronger, they miss the calls."
Thibodeau, who preaches a hard-nosed defensive effort, is — as you would expect — in favor of the changes.
"I would say most of the rule changes have favored the offense and so now there’s more of physicality to it," Thibodeau said. "Also, not giving free throws away where players are tricking officials into calls and that sort of thing. I think it’s good. People want to see competition. You’ve got the best athletes in the world, and when they compete at a high level, it’s great to watch."
The Knicks improved dramatically last season in Thibodeau’s first year back in New York as head coach, and while the rules may favor his style, the team is still trying to live up to the reputation of his teams. Part of it is that even 20 games in, Knicks players, like players around the league, are adapting to the new rules.
"That’s the thing that sometimes does get overlooked," Thibodeau said. "NBA players are going to adapt very quickly to how the game is being called. If they know that you can get free throws for doing this, you’re going to see a lot of players doing the same thing. The same holds true the other way.
"And that was my experience. Where it stood out to me was when I was with Team USA and FIBA rules and we had FIBA officials come in and talk to our players before we started playing. They explained the differences of how things were called. I thought initially we’re going to be in trouble. The next day we’re at practice and our players immediately adapted to how the game was being called. Sometimes I think people overlook that. Players in this league are real smart. They’re going to adapt to however it’s being called."
Randle’s unhappiness Tuesday night came from getting only two free throws on a night when he attacked the rim with force rather than relying on long jumpers and three-point field goals.
"The thing is — just play," Thibodeau said. "He’ll adapt. It’s an emotional game. He’s going to the basket very aggressively. And we want him to. That’s when he plays his best. Just keep attacking the rim. When he does that, he makes us a lot different.
"I think he’s doing a combination of both [shooting three-pointers and driving]. Right now he’s attacking the rim pretty aggressively, which is what we want him to do."