It is not likely a surprise to Orlando head coach Steve Clifford, having served alongside Tom Thibodeau as assistant coaches together in New York and in Houston, that the Knicks have stepped up in class this season. But he paid his longtime friend a compliment that would warm Thibodeau’s heart.
As the Orlando Magic readied to play the Knicks Wednesday he watched film of the Knicks and Clifford provided a simple scouting report.
"I would say they’d be one of the teams people don’t want to play against," Clifford said. "They defend every night. You’re not going to get anything easy. They’re good on both backboards. His teams, as the season goes on they’ll get better and better offensively. They’re second or third in defense. I don’t think there’s a bigger compliment in this league than being hard to play against, that a team wouldn’t want to play against. And they’ll continue to get better."
And that has been the hallmark of Thibodeau’s teams in Chicago and Minnesota, whether they were reaching the Eastern Conference Finals or scrambling for a playoff berth, and the latest bit of proof that his efforts are working in New York, too.
While his time away from the game after being let go in Minnesota allowed him the opportunity to visit with other teams and see how other coaches worked, Thibodeau has remained true to his basic strategies. While the Knicks roster is arguably no better than last years — adding Immanuel Quickley, losing Marcus Morris — they entered Wednesday’s game with a 14-15 record, three straight wins and had slipped into sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
"I think the biggest thing for us is just to worry about what we have to do to win," Thibodeau said. "We want to be strong on both sides of the ball. It’s not just the defensive part, but it’s the offensive part as well. I think playing unselfishly on both sides of the ball, it starts there.
"But it’s the degree of how hard we play, the degree of how smart we play, and the degree of how together we play. It requires everyone working together. It’s not an individual sport. It’s a team sport. And we know when we do that we know we have a chance to win no matter who we’re playing against."
The biggest difference between last season and this one has been the play of Julius Randle, but it’s hard to argue that the Knicks have not happily adopted Thibodeau’s teachings, focusing in on attention to detail on both ends of the floor.
The Knicks entered the night allowing 103.6 points per game, the fewest in the NBA, and were also first in field goal percentage against and three-point field goal percentage against.
"It’s the No. 1 thing: preparation," Nerlens Noel said. "And I think Coach brings that mentality every day in and out. He holds everybody accountable to do their job at a high level. Attention to detail, focus, you see it, the habits we want to practice. Coach has been great. He’s had a great track record, so it shows."
Derrick Rose, who played for him in Chicago and Minnesota and just joined the Knicks four games ago, agreed that he sees much of the same things, although there is a difference.
"I mean, in Chicago, that was his first time having a team. So that was different," Rose said Monday. "But in Minnesota, you could see that he was catching up with just the new league. There’s kids that’s in the league now. They’re young. They’re trying to figure themselves out. And Thibs has more patience than anything. Just being here, appreciating the situation, appreciating him a lot more, it’s a blessing to be here. But you could just tell that he’s just a totally different person now. He’s smiling. I’ve never seen him smile as much as he has right now. So it rubs off on me. Feeling his energy."
Notes & quotes: Frank Ntilikina, after having to spend the last week quarantined in a Miami hotel room after being sidelined by health and safety protocols after close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, was back with the team Wednesday and active. He was able to work out on an exercise bike in his hotel room, but Wednesday morning's shootaround was his first chance to play after taking a car service to Orlando to meet the team.