Maybe you believe Tom Thibodeau when he tells you that facing the team that fired him just over two years ago didn’t hold any extra meaning, that he doesn’t hold any ill will toward the Minnesota Timberwolves.
When Thibodeau was fired from his dual jobs as coach and president of the Timberwolves, he left behind grumbling by some about his methods. But he also left behind the team’s first playoff appearance in 14 seasons.
He brought that contradiction to New York this season: the worries about how he would deal with players and how he would drive his team, countered by the most important thing to Knicks fans — whether he could turn around a long-suffering franchise.
The answer as he faced his former team for the first time was uncertain. The Knicks showed progress for much of the night but then saw a 21-point third-quarter lead disappear.
But after falling behind by a point twice late in the fourth quarter, the Knicks managed to right themselves for a 103-99 win in the final fan-free game at Madison Square Garden before the crowd returns Tuesday.
Oddly, after the game, the Timberwolves announced the firing of coach Ryan Saunders, who replaced Thibodeau. Minnesota has an NBA-worst 7-24 record.
The Knicks went ahead 86-65 with 1:48 left in the third quarter but then were outscored 33-11 in the next 12:04 to fall behind by one. Julius Randle (25 points, 14 rebounds) and Alec Burks went a combined 6-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final 32 seconds to pull it out.
Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns, who was one of the projects who bristled under Thibodeau’s leadership, contributed 15 points and nine rebounds in the fourth quarter to finish with 27 points and 15 rebounds.
It wasn’t just the scoring of Randle but the defense of Taj Gibson, one of Thibodeau’s favorites in Chicago and Minnesota, that helped win it for the Knicks (15-16). Guarding Towns in the final minute after Nerlens Noel fouled out, Gibson forced him into a tough baseline jumper that rimmed out with 23 seconds left. So call it a draw between Thibodeau and the team he left behind.
"That just showed growth," Gibson said. "Understanding that we’re a different team from last year, as far as the mental state, how we huddle when it’s close, understanding the stakes. It’s always tough losing a big lead like that, but at the end of the day, you just have to man up and try to get a and just focus on mistakes in practice.
"Luckily for us, we pulled it out. Won’t have to hear Thibs mouth after the game. We come away with a positive. We still have some things to correct. But like I said before, we’re a hungry young group and everybody works every day. So we’re just going to make our corrections and move forward."
Minnesota went ahead 96-95 with 2:48 left when Towns dropped in a short turnaround over Noel. RJ Barrett (21 points) put the Knicks in front again with 1:59 to play, driving through the teeth of the Minnesota defense. But Towns struck again, fouling out Noel and converting two free throws for a 98-97 lead.
Towns then swatted away Barrett’s shot in the lane with just over a minute to play, but for a second straight possession, he made a pretty pass and his Minnesota teammates could not convert. Towns then fouled Randle with 32 seconds left and Randle, continuing to make his All-Star case, hit both free throws to put the Knicks ahead 99-98.
"I think we’re trying to win every game," Barrett said. "I think I’m very happy we got this one for Coach Thibs, but we need to continue to keep it rolling."
"I will say this about Thibs, he’s a tough coach if you don’t like to be coached or if you don’t like to play or do things the right way, then he’s tough," Randle said in a podcast with Pelicans guard JJ Redick. "But Thibs is a type of guy that, he just expects a certain level of professionalism, he expects you to do things the right way, be prepared and do things the right way on a day-to-day basis, and if you don’t want to do that, then it’s going to be tough.
"Honestly, man, he’s not as much of a [tough guy] as people think he is. The dude is super-cool, like you can talk to him. He’s going to kill me if he sees this, but he really is soft. You can talk to him. Thibs is dope. Honestly, he’s a players’ coach. This is the most fun that I’ve had as far as playing in the league, for sure."