Before the Knicks took the court in Miami on Wednesday night, Tom Thibodeau spent a long time behind closed doors with Jeff Van Gundy, a customary interview session for national broadcasts. But more than that, it was Thibodeau speaking with no cameras to his long-time friend, the man who hired him into the Knicks' organization decades ago.
And while there were no cameras recording that conversation, you can be sure that when Van Gundy went on the air and spit out disgusted takes on the play of the Knicks in their 110-96 loss to the Heat, a game in which the Knicks trailed by 30 points, you can be sure that he was sending a message that Thibodeau has avoided saying publicly himself.
"They just need major changes," Van Gundy said on ESPN. "They don’t bring it on a nightly basis. I’m talking about the starting unit. There’s been plenty of times throughout the year to show they work well together. I just don't see how they continue on like this. That’s the definition of insanity is seeing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."
Thibodeau earned Coach of the Year honors last season after the Knicks went 41-31 and earned the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. But after what the front office believed was a talent upgrade in the summer, he has been unable to coax consistent performance out of this group.
Julius Randle’s regression and odd body language have played a major part in it. The absence of Derrick Rose has been a huge factor. Kemba Walker’s in-and-out-of-the-lineup inconsistencies hurt. Nerlens Noel has been a non-factor all season, playing in only 20 games because of injuries.
Asked if he would consider changes to the starting lineup, Thibodeau said, "Yeah, we’ll see. The thing is — yeah, it’s not just the starters. The bench did some good things, but we need everyone to play well.
"We’ve had the starters play really well and then the challenge for us is we gotta get everyone playing well. We had the starters play well for a stretch there and the bench was struggling and it’s vice versa, so we’ve got to get it going. We’ve got to fix it."
While the Knicks' starters undoubtedly are more talented and polished, the bench often has provided a burst of energy, as it did repeatedly on Wednesday. Obi Toppin shot 7-for-9 and scored 18 points, his second straight game of efficient offense to go along with his energy. But Toppin can’t provide some of the things in drawing double teams that Randle does, and Thibodeau has not been able to play them together effectively.
"I just know when I get into the game I have to bring energy," Toppin said. "I don’t want to mess up. I go in, play my hardest and play with a lot of energy. We depend on each other. We all have to go out and do our job."
For the Knicks, that means the starters and the bench players. But with the trade deadline two weeks away and this combination struggling to fit together, it also might mean the front office.
It was an odd fit early in the season, and Evan Fournier, one of the new pieces, said the problems are changing but they're not gone.
"I think the problems are different," he said. "I don’t think it’s the same. To start the year, it was more about understanding what guys are doing and even on defense, we weren’t good on defense at all because, whatever. But I think right now, it’s a little different. It’s more about bringing the best out of everyone and playing to our strength."