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For Tom Thibodeau the coach, 'everything matters to me'

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau gestures

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When Tom Thibodeau was introduced as the Knicks’ head coach in July 2020, he talked about how he’d spent his time away from the sideline. He had visited with friends in the coaching fraternity, learning tactics of others — and more than any strategic variation, it was learning how the coaches interact with players now.

There was little doubt that Thibodeau was a special coach. He’d earned a championship ring as an assistant in Boston. In his first season as a head coach, he won 62 games and earned Coach of the Year honors with the Bulls. He won in Chicago, then he won in Minnesota, and maybe most telling, when he departed, the teams floundered.

But there was nagging criticism about his hard-nosed style and stubborn personality, whispers from players who griped about excessive minutes or injuries or old-school screaming.

And here is the truth: He still screams. He plays his best players a lot of minutes. By the time the season is about a week old, his vocal cords will be strained. But the truth that matters is that he has changed in some ways, but the one that matters most has not — he’s still winning.

He earned Coach of the Year honors again in his debut season in New York, returning the team to relevance and the postseason.

But he got the Knicks there by doing what he has always done, treating every practice, every preseason game, every game in the dog days of a long season, with the same importance. And that sometimes makes you think he’s still the same coach he always was.

"Sometimes he’s just so wrapped up in the game," said Taj Gibson, who played for Thibodeau with the Bulls and Timberwolves before joining him in New York. "And then you have to sometimes — like, if you tap him, if you kind of touch him in the moment, Thibs will kind of snap out of it himself and be like, ‘Oh, no! That was a good shot! I want you to shoot that shot.’

"He’s just so fired up and just wants to win and has that passion for the game. Sometimes he just loses sight. But if you just really talk to him, he’s like, ‘Nah, nah. I want you to shoot that shot. That’s what we work on every day.’ . . . So it is just getting used to. Just don’t look at him in the heat of the moment."

For Gibson and Derrick Rose, who also has played for him in each of his head-coaching stops, there is a familiarity and a belief. And maybe most important, there is a belief from the team’s best player, Julius Randle.

Jeff Van Gundy used to talk about how hard Patrick Ewing worked in practice, and that when your best player works that hard, there can be no excuse for anyone else to not do the same. In Randle, Thibodeau has a star who bought in willingly, leading the NBA last season in minutes played and returning to the gym at night for more work. In Rose and Gibson, he has disciples who know he will stand by them. In Randle and RJ Barrett, he has the best talents on the team willing to work alongside him.

"Everyone has to be themselves," Thibodeau said. "There’s a lot of different ways. I’m not saying my way is for everyone. I know my way is for me. And everything matters to me, everything that we do.

"I’ve seen guys who are very successful doing it another way. That’s the beauty of this game. It’s played a lot of different ways. There’s a lot of different styles. There’s a lot of great coaches out there. I think for us, we’re an organization that’s building right now. We want to get established. So our fight continues every day. I love the fight in our guys."

For Thibodeau to be successful, his players have to love the fight in him, too. And this group — or at least the group he had last season — does love it and understand it.

As Gibson described, Thibodeau on the sideline sometimes is in a place that veers off the path of the player’s coach he really is. Those who know him best, who have seen it since they were young players in the game, now guide the younger players on how to navigate through that fire.

The Knicks went unbeaten in the preseason in no small part because Thibodeau treated the games like everything else. But that meant his face is a visible representation of his passion. He appears heartbroken after a missed shot. Steam almost can be seen emanating from his head after a missed defensive assignment.

"I was telling the young guys, do not look over to the sideline," Rose said. "If you look at him, it’s going to [mess] up your game. So do not look at him. Just raise your hand. Everybody knows you made a mistake, and just keep it going. If you look over there, it’s over. Everybody knows you messed up, bro, just keep playing and know that you have to give that same effort throughout the entire game.

"When I was younger, I used to look over at the sideline a lot. And you feel his emotions. It’s kind of strange, bro. After a while I just raised my hand, bro, and put my head down. But even then, he’s a winner, so you express yourself how you want to as a man.

"You could be vocal with him. You could yell. You could do whatever. But right after that, you got to get back on track and understand the goal is to win the game. And that’s something Thibs is great at. He has amnesia."

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