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Believe it or not, Tom Thibodeau's Knicks are for real

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau, center,

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau, center, huddles with the team before an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets in Houston, Sunday, May 2, 2021. (Troy Taormina/Pool Photo via AP) Credit: AP/Troy Taormina

On the very first day of training camp, Tom Thibodeau was asked what might have seemed like a far-fetched question. Taking over a Knicks team that had stumbled to a 21-45 record in 2020, had added only around the margins and had no experience with him, he was asked if, despite all of the naysayers, he thought this could be a playoff team.

"I never really pay attention to that stuff," he said. "If you go back over the years it's really meaningless. What I look at is, 'OK, this is our team. How can we get better? What gives us the best chance to win?' And just taking it day by day. A lot of things can happen over the course of the season.

"So the focus for us and for our team has to be on doing the right things each and every day. And, if we do that, we'll improve, and we'll get better and that's all we have to think about. It really doesn't matter what the outside people think, whether it's Vegas or anyone else. It's what we think. So if we come in each and every day and we do the right things and we play for each other, good things will happen."

If it sounded like a cliche at the time, it certainly doesn’t now. Thibodeau preached it not only in news conferences but to his team, too. Don’t listen to the outside noise. Practice well every day. Work hard. Be accountable to the team and your teammates. And in the end, good things will happen.

Maybe he believed this was possible or maybe he, too, thought it was just talk. But he did his part, showing up, staying late, preparing the Knicks — his team — to win. And the players responded and now, here they are, preparing for the playoffs in a position that few could have imagined. The Knicks went 41-31, earned the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and home court in the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks in a first-round series that will begin Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

"When he took over Chicago they were a .500 team," former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "Minnesota, they were historically bad and had been bad for long periods of time. This one is similar. They have been bad for the better part of 20 years. This is what he does. He takes over rebuilding projects. He gets them organized. He sifts through the talent at hand to figure out what’s best for that team at that particular time. He did it in Chicago. He did it in Minnesota and now he’s doing it here."

Like in Minnesota, where the Timberwolves had not gotten to the postseason for the previous 13 seasons, Thibodeau has brought the Knicks into the playoffs after a seven-year absence. But even as his teams rose in Chicago and Minnesota there was an undercurrent that took the form of criticism from within. It came from the front office with the Bulls, where the credit and coach that they wanted wasn’t the stubborn, hard-driving Thibodeau. In Minnesota, there were grumblings from players who didn’t want to buy in.

And it’s easy to say that in New York he hasn’t faced those issues. Team president Leon Rose is a long-time ally. The players, beaten down by losing, have accepted his way as the right way. But it’s more than that. In the time off after being let go in Minnesota, Thibodeau went from city to city, visiting with friends in the coaching fraternity, watching how they practiced, how they communicated with players.

He was named the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for April, although the National Basketball Coaches Association announced Tuesday that it was naming Monty Williams of Phoenix its Coach of the Year in a vote of NBA coaches. Still, he has plenty of support among his peers.

"Those of us who know him are kind of laughing, but laughing with huge respect," said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who had Thibodeau on his United States National Team staff. "You knew it was going to happen. He was going to grab that group. Challenge them. Establish standards. Hold them accountable, beginning at the defensive end. It just makes you smile. You know it’s going to happen. It’s like night comes after the day. He went and did it again. You're thrilled for him. He’s brought respect to the basketball team and the organization. He’s made it a winning culture."

Part of the buy-in from players comes from knowing that he has their backs, too. While some players have made drastic improvements this season, he has stood by Elfrid Payton even while the point guard has struggled badly down the stretch. If you expect him to turn on Payton it would go against his history. In his first season as a head coach with the Bulls, there was a similar outcry to pull Keith Bogans from the starting lineup. But he started Bogans every game, right through the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, even if he, like Payton, only played limited minutes.

There has not been a moment this season when he has criticized a player publicly, when he hasn’t insisted that every player on the team is important. As close as he has come to admitting any doubts came on the final day of the season when he was asked if he really believed that the team could have reached this point so soon.

"I didn’t know to be honest with you," Thibodeau said. "But I felt if we did the right things we would have a chance to be a decent team, and this team continues to improve and grow, so it’s not surprising when you’re around them every day and you see the commitment that they’ve made - it doesn’t surprise me."

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