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Tom Thibodeau the difference-maker in Knicks' surprising start

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks reacts

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks reacts to referee Phenizee Ransom #70 against the Atlanta Hawks during the second half at State Farm Arena on January 4, 2021 in Atlanta. Credit: Getty Images/Kevin C. Cox

When the Knicks finished off a four-game road trip Monday with another win to push their record to 4-3 players began to talk about something special happening for the downtrodden franchise. Tom Thibodeau even managed a rare smile in a postgame news conference.

There are plenty of reasons to question just what this means with the opening weeks of the NBA season producing many chaotic results such as the Knicks’ 20-point win over Milwaukee, Cleveland’s blowout of the 76ers and a pair of games with 50-point deficits. But it’s hard to nitpick what Thibodeau and the Knicks have done through the first seven games.

The Knicks have endured seven straight losing seasons, haven’t had a winning record after seven games since 2012-13, and were 1-6 after seven games last season. But with three wins on the four-game road trip the Knicks return home to face the Utah Jazz Wednesday night with a winning record and a sense of pride that hasn’t occupied the halls of Madison Square Garden in a long time.

"I don’t know if it’s surprising but I like the confidence of our group," said Julius Randle, who is averaging 22.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists. "Every game we come in we expect to win. And I love that about our group.

"And I think it’s also a testament to the coaches. Thibs every day is on us. He’s a great leader for us and given us a game plan we believe in every day and we’re coming into every game focused and locked into the game plan of what we need to do. I feel like if we do that we have a chance to win the game, so we’re just trying to give ourselves that every night and, like I said, learn how to win games."

Thibodeau is certainly the biggest change in the team. The 62-year-old former Knicks assistant has been out on his own, winning a championship ring as an assistant with the Boston Celtics and then making the postseason nearly every year as a head coach in Chicago and Minnesota. The roster is similar to last season’s 21-45 squad that ran through two head coaches before COVID-19 ended its season.

But in returning to join forces with his long-time agent and friend, Leon Rose, who is now the Knicks president, he has quickly changed the production and the accountability for the team.

"Teams I’ve been on in the past — I’ve been on a lot of winning teams like USA Basketball, both my years at Kentucky we had winning teams — and you can tell when guys like being around each other, not only on the floor but guys like being around each other off the floor," rookie Immanuel Quickley said. "That’s a big part of team chemistry. We don’t really have a lot of egos, which is kind of hard, I feel, to find in the NBA. But this team has great camaraderie and I feel like that’s the biggest part of being able to do something special. That’s why we’ve been able to come back a lot of times. Whether it be preseason, regular season, we just don’t give up on each other."

Quickley might be the most important newcomer, but he has played in only three games and limited minutes at that. Austin Rivers just arrived for the last three games after missing all of training camp and not practicing with the full squad, but he’s contributed off the bench. Injuries have cut the available pieces down and raised the minutes up for the primary contributors. But still, they have gotten off to a start that exceeds any expectations, at least outside of their locker room.

"I think the togetherness is a big part of it," Thibodeau said. "I think the willingness to share the ball, to play hard for each other . . . I think that’s a big part of winning. They come in and they work every day.

"We’re not perfect. We have a lot of work to do. Concentrate on the improvement. We have to learn from every game. We won the game but obviously there are things we could do a lot better and that’s what we’ll focus on. When we go home, there’s another challenge waiting for us."

The Knicks have an above-.500 record after seven games for only the fourth time since the turn of the century:

2000-01 5-2

2008-09 4-3

2012-13 6-1

2020-21 4-3

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