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Tom Thibodeau embraces Knicks' tough early schedule

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the second

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the second half of the team's NBA preseason game against the Pistons on Dec. 11, 2020, in Detroit. Credit: AP/Carlos Osorio

After the Knicks absorbed a one-sided defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night, a large contingent of the team’s young players went back on the Madison Square Garden court to work out. A pregame walkthrough Sunday afternoon had them back on the Garden court again, and then it was on to face the Milwaukee Bucks.

If this seems like a hard way to ease into the season for a new coaching staff and a young team, you’d be right. And while no amount of rest or preparation would help the Knicks face the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this certainly wasn’t the optimum situation.

But it is the reality that the Knicks face as they try to get on track, with losses in the first two games spoiling the optimism of a 3-1 preseason.

"I like it," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "The opportunity where we go on the road against a good Indiana team, come back and then have a tough Philadelphia team and then a back-to-back with a tough Milwaukee team, so it shows us exactly where we are and the things we have to work on and concentrate on to improve.

"So sometimes, and that’s part of the NBA, sometimes the schedule is going your way. Sometimes it’s not. We’re all hopefully playing 72 games, so it will swing at some point, but I think this will help us develop."

The start has presented a hard lesson for the Knicks, the fourth-youngest team in the NBA this season, a team without a single player who has reached the age of 30. With a new coaching staff and a young team, the Knicks have run an early gantlet, and it showed on the scoreboard with a 14-point loss in Indiana on Wednesday and a 20-point defeat in the home opener Saturday.

It hasn’t helped that the Knicks' two first-round picks have been sidelined since the first game of the season. Lottery pick Obi Toppin suffered a calf strain that is likely to keep him out for at least two weeks and Immanuel Quickley injured his hip in a collision after just 12 minutes on the floor in the opener.

The players who are back from last season have struggled with inconsistency or struggled with the opposite — consistently poor performances. RJ Barrett connected on his first nine shots in Indiana and then missed his first nine shots Saturday on his way to a 2-for-15 performance. Elfrid Payton has struggled badly at point guard and no backup has proved capable yet of doing better.

Add to that injuries that have kept Austin Rivers out since the very first practice session of training camp and sidelined Dennis Smith Jr. Sunday with a contused left quadriceps.

The effort has been a bright spot. After an 0-for-6 shooting night with just one assist Saturday, Payton returned to the court afterward and worked alone at one basket. Frank Ntilikina, Theo Pinson, Iggy Brazdeikis and Jared Harper worked on the other end with an assistant coach.

In the midst of his shooting disaster Saturday, Barrett was urging teammates on as they went to the locker room.

"We got a really good group of players," Thibodeau said. "We have younger players who want to get better and they’re putting a lot of time in. I see it all the time at the practice facility. Guys are coming back to work on their game and studying film. They’re getting treatment. They’re doing a lot of things that are very positive. I told them that today. We’re not quite there yet, but we will be at some point. As long as we’re putting the proper amount of work in every day, the improvement will come.''

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