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Despite low expectations, Tom Thibodeau sets Knicks on course to succeed

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau smiles during the

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau smiles during the second half of an NBA preseason game against the Wizards on Saturday in Washington. Credit: AP/Nick Wass

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — When the oddsmakers put the Knicks at an over/under of 41 wins this season, it was easy to look at the teams picked to sit atop the Eastern Conference and understand why the expectations weren’t higher.

As hard as it may be to imagine for anyone who has observed the franchise for the last two decades, though, the Knicks have navigated through the offseason and training camp without a hint of controversy or trouble. And for the teams around them, headlines blare the sort of dysfunction that once was the specialty for Madison Square Garden.

The Nets held a news conference Tuesday to announce the end — at least for now — of the Kyrie Irving drama, leaving him out of the game and practice plans and moving on without him.

That came less than 24 hours after Ben Simmons surprised the Philadelphia 76ers by showing up at Wells Fargo Center, but with nothing near a resolution to the friction between him and the team.

Jaylen Brown and Al Horford of the Boston Celtics tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days, a reminder of the struggles the team endured last season.

"That’s the beauty of sports," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "When you think about it, it’s like, you go into a season and you don’t know how it’s going to unfold. . . . Things can change very quickly in this league. They can go from being bad to going real well very quickly and they can do the opposite. So you could be sailing along smoothly and then all of a sudden, you can get derailed by one injury. And so that’s part of sports. The idea is to practice, improve and play your best down the stretch. And then you let the chips fall where they may once you get there."

The Knicks have put up two impressive performances, posting one-sided victories over Indiana and Washington, with the preseason schedule ending with Wednesday night’s game against Detroit and Friday night's game against Washington. The entire team is vaccinated. There have been no major injuries and no sign of a struggle to fit in new pieces Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. They almost seem to be coasting under the radar.

"It doesn’t matter. We’re all about the Knicks," RJ Barrett said. "The Knicks will never be an under-the-radar team. We’re just focused on improving and getting better every day."

"You know, we try not to pay attention to that," Nerlens Noel added. "We respect everybody and their bodies and their decisions. I do. So we really don’t pay attention to that. We know what our goals are this year. If you’re a competitor, you’re not really focused on that. You’re focused on what you can do to win the game, period. If that’s a weakness of theirs, we just focus on what we can do when we show up when we’re playing against these opposing teams. So we’re not worried about what they have going on, for sure."

Thibodeau insisted that this outside noise is not a concern. He just tries to keep his players focused and working the same as they have since he began last season with even lower expectations.

"I have enough to worry about here, so I just worry about us," he said. "And I love the group that we have. From our vets to our young guys, it’s just a great group to be around. You never come in not looking forward to seeing them, being with them and working together. And when you get a group that makes that type of commitment to not only themselves but to each other, it’s special. And we’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s not going to be easy. But I look forward to doing it with these guys. They’re special."

Notes & quotes: Noel said the sore left knee that sidelined him for the first two preseason games actually is more of a hamstring issue. He practiced but was unsure if he will play Wednesday. Thibodeau said the decision will be made after shootaround, but Noel isn’t worried about missing preseason games. "Making sure we tread lightly, making sure there’s no setbacks," he said. "The most important part of the season is [Games] 1 through 82, so I’m going to lock it in."

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